It has been a busy few months. We are closing in on our last few weeks of pregnancy. I had been doing a fantastic course on Aesthetics, Criticism and Theory. After watching Paul Schrader’s (of Taxi Driver and Mishima fame) 2017 movie, First Reformed I felt compelled to write about it. Allowing myself a chance to untangle it in greater detail. There will be spoilers, Here Be Dragons.
Who’s gonna stand up and save the Earth? Who’s gonna say that she’s had enough? Who’s gonna take on the big machine? Who’s gonna stand up and save the Earth? This all starts with you and me Neil Young, Who’s Gonna Stand Up and Save The Earth
Being on the cusp of fatherhood, there were many a times where I was in utter despair about bringing a child into the world we have today. What will the children of Tomorrow inherit? What is going to fill the void of this unfathomable destruction - Love, Hate, Religion, Art?
‘Will God Forgive Us?’, Schrader tries to get to the heart of this penetrating question. Ethan Hawke plays a pastor, Toller, of a church called First Reformed. The church had been immersed with rich history being a pit stop in the Underground Railroad, but now serves as a tourist site.
The church comes under the umbrella of a mega-church, Abundant Life, funded by a wealthy energy mogul. Toller is a complex man, drowning himself in alcohol in an attempt to put distance between a scarred past, growing moral despair over the state of the planet, and hypocrisy of modern faith. Amidst this we see his body slipping into sickness.
Toller’s wavering faith collides with Michael, an eco-activist. Michael’s pregnant wife, Mary, pulls in Toller to help Michael with his depression. We see Toller engaging in a war of ideas. Toller tells Michael, half-convincingly, that the only way forward is to hold hope and despair in our minds simultaneously. The next day, he finds Michael dead in the woods. He comes upon a suicide vest that Michael had hidden in his garage, along with his laptop. Plunging him further into world of climate change and the politics of the planet’s destruction.
Toller’s attempts to push his mega-church to do better for the environment meets with apathy and dismissal. The mega-church doesn’t want to sully itself with politics, trying to convince Toller that politics has no place in religion. At around the same time, in a prayer circle, when Toller tries to explain that faith has nothing to do with prosperity. A teenager accosts him saying that without a pursuit of wealth, Christians would become “losers”. Reminding us that there is an ever present undercurrent of neoliberal politics festering right under the surface in establishments like these. Faith in modern day America is deeply tangled with the prosperity gospel being shoved down our throats.
In its pursuit of legitimacy and growth, the church fossilizes its history with the Underground Railroad. In the amber of that kindness, allows itself to be consumed by its nihilism. With its 250th Anniversary looming in the corner, Toller decides the only way to make things right is to finish what Michael had started. Blow up the church and everyone in it with the suicide vest. The only string holding Toller to hope is his growing relationship with Michael’s widow, Mary.
Is love enough? Would it outweigh the harm we are causing our planet? Can we indeed hold two ideas— despair and hope, simultaneously? Paul Schrader leaves us to make up our mind with an explosive final act.
In our current environment of nihilist positivism, of self help books, “positive energy” mumbo jumbo, First Reformed is a complex piece of art dealing with the nuance of faith, despair and crucially, hope.