For those lucky enough to see Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” this past weekend (and it’s only in 4 theaters currently so it might take a while to reach you) you’ve seen the type of film Alabama Liberal might make if he stumbled onto a financier with lots of money and no immediate need to see it again.
What Works: While most people weren’t looking, Ethan Hawke has quietly become one of the best actors alive. He blazes the screen in this quietly nuanced performance as a reverend coming apart on the inside as he wrestles with a mysterious stomach illness, his poorly attended services funded entirely by a shady mega-church, and a profound spiritual crisis. But while most films about a preacher having a spiritual crisis would entail him becoming disilluisioned with his faith this one is more about living in a world that’s destroying itself environmentally.
He wonders what God would say about mankind polluting the Earth, spurred by a new church member that’s flirting with becoming an eco-terrorist. The man’s wife (the luminous Amanda Seyfried) is pregnant, but the man wonders how you can bring a child into a world that’s slowly killing itself and nobody cares. Most movies about man’s alienation involve the character finding peace in nature, but one of this film’s best sequences involves Hawke’s Rev. Toller going from thinking about gorgeous ocean waves and luscious green hills to tire junkyards and polluted streams.
Although this is mostly a fine character study, Schrader also includes a few pointed (and accurate) scenes showing how big business–especially big polluters–have hijacked Christianity. Toller’s more affable boss (Cedric the Entertainer) often downplays environmental concerns because his church is so heavily funded by Big Energy.
What Doesn’t: The journal entries Toller experiments with might be a little too much of an homage to Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest.” It’s a plot device that doesn’t entirely justify itself as the movie keeps going. And opinions of the film’s wild ending will be all over the place, there will be a riot of emotions in the theater, but I think that’s a good thing.
What I Would Have Done Differently: Initially, the film’s ending feels a little bit like a cop-out, and I might’ve gone in a different direction. It’s one of the very, very rare times you can question if Schrader doesn’t go far enough. Still, this is easily his best movie since his underrated 90’s films like the excellent “Affliction,” one of the best films ever made about the cycle of violence with childhood abuse bleeding into adult life. You-know-who willing, this will begin a sea change in people’s awareness between religious silence on climate crisis and polluter’s donations.