Looking For Meaning In Desolation


Title: First Reformed

Rating: 5 Stars

Warning, this is a grim film. I wouldn’t advise watching it if you’re already feeling  despair with the world. This film will not help your mood.

Ethan Hawke is Reverend Toller, leader of the First Reformed Church. It is the oldest church in the state and once had the nobility of being a stop on the underground railroad. This is its 250 year anniversary and a big celebration is planned.

The only problem is that the church is no longer relevant. Reverend Toller’s flock is something less than 10 people. It is actually owned by a much larger megachurch named Abundant Life. The purpose of the church is simply a tourist destination for those interested in its history. The Abundant Life leader considers it a ‘Souvenir Shop’ church.

Reverend Toller is himself a desolate man. He comes from a tradition of military service. He was a military chaplain and encouraged his son to enlist as well. Much to his despair, his son was killed in Iraq. Now broken, sick, and alcoholic, it takes all of his strength to keep even the minimal commitments of his old church and his dwindling flock.

A pregnant woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried), comes to him seeking guidance. Her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), a radical environmentalist, wants her to get an abortion. Reverend Toller agrees to counsel Michael. They end up having an intense conversation regarding the inevitable climate doom that humanity is facing and the value of hope and despair in such a situation.

Mary urgently calls Toller one day and shows him a suicide vest of explosives that Michael has built. Toller takes it and promises to destroy it. Michael agrees to another counseling session with Toller, but when Toller arrives he finds Michael did from a suicidal shotgun blast.

In Michael’s grief, he finds himself getting pulled into the desperate challenge of climate change as well as getting increasingly intimate with Mary. He tangles with both the Abundant Life leader and a town leader who happens to be both a large contributor to the Abundant Life church as well as a major polluter.

In the midst of this, Toller’s health continues to worsen. He finally goes to a doctor and he is diagnosed with cancer. He is told to stop drinking but cannot.

Unknown to everyone, Toller actually has not gotten rid of the suicide vest. Increasingly in despair with the state of the environment, questionable morality of the Abundant Life Church taking money from an organization that is actively destroying God’s creation, and knowing that he’s about to die anyway, he begins to contemplate committing a terrorist act during the 250 year celebration.

Like I said, this is not a happy film, but it is an excellent film.

First, let’s start with the writer and the director, Paul Schrader. He’s having an interesting renaissance now. He’s most famous for writing the screenplay for Taxi Driver,  Raging Bull, Hardcore, and Mosquito Coast, among others. Interestingly, he was raised in a strict Calvinist household and wasn’t even allowed to watch a film until he was eighteen. During the 1970s, he definitely broke out of that mold and was considered one of the crazier / drug fueled members of that generation of film makers. Given all of that, it’s pretty clear that he has unresolved issues regarding religion that is being worked out here.

Ethan Hawke gives a haunting performance. I don’t know if he lost weight for the role, but he looks absolutely wasted here. There is no movie star glamour. He looks and acts like a broken, bereft man.

Not only is Toller desolate, but the world around him is as well. It’s winter. It’s cold. Snow blankets the ground. There is very little sign of life.

The church is not only empty of faith but is also itself decrepit. Its organ doesn’t work and it has a leak in the bathroom.

Micheal’s funeral is at a toxic waste site. He’s cremated. His ashes are kept in what appears to be a non-recyclable store plastic bag.

For such a grim film, there’s a couple of what can only be described as fantasy scenes in it. There’s one where Mary lies completely on Toller (in an intimate but not sexual manner) and they stare into each other’s eyes. This causes them to go on some hallucinatory journey where they start off by sailing through the paradise like beauty of Earth before ending up in the man created ruined wastelands of it. The meaning is obvious, but the way that it was filmed kind of reminded me of the Soarin’ Around the World Epcot ride.

Since it’s a fairly new film, I won’t spoil the ending but it’s harrowing. There might be a hopeful element to it, but honestly, I can’t tell if that is reality or more of Toller’s hallucinations. The film appears at best ambiguous.

So, not a happy film but a deeply felt and thought provoking one that left me somewhat disturbed. I personally enjoy films like that, but buyer beware.



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