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Warning: numerous spoilers ahead.
“Who will release me from the body of this death?”
This question, posed rhetorically in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, has become a real question for the Rev. Ernst Toller, a 40-something preacher, splendidly acted by Ethan Hawke, who’s only too well acquainted with death—the death of his son in Iraq, the death of his marriage, and his own impending death from what he rightly surmises to be an undiagnosed cancer.
Rev. Toller both has and has not lost his faith. Like writer/director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ), and like the Bible’s Jacob, Toller still wrestles with God and thus also with the inescapable question of theodicy: i.e., if God is good, gracious, and powerful why do the innocent suffer?
Tellingly, Toller discloses in voiceover that he actually feels a little like Jacob when he engages in dialogue with Michael, a young environmental activist, convincingly played by Philip Ettinger.
Michael’s own passion for the survival of all living things has thrown him into utter despair. He cannot bear the thought of his unborn child being born into a world in its death throes on account of accelerating climate change. His pregnant wife, Mary, played by a superb Amanda Seyfried, has reached out to Rev. Toller in the hope that the minister might be able to help Michael find some reason for hope.
The pastor counsels Michael that it is our human duty to hold despair and hope together and not let either eclipse the other. Yet he himself cannot fend off despair and desperation after Michael kills himself, despite the pastoral counsel. He must also face the abomination of witnessing the founder/CEO of a leading corporate polluter (think Charles Koch) speak at the anniversary celebration and re-consecration of the 250-year-old Dutch Reformed church he serves in Upstate New York.
This corporate criminal has been subsidizing the town’s megachurch (Abundant Life) and is even responsible for sparsely-attended First Reformed’s continuing existence as a kind of theme-park satellite (Toller is aware that the kids at Abundant Life refer to it sneeringly as “the gift shop”). In terms of what’s conventionally “done” in these circumstances, the church’s benefactor is clearly entitled to speak. But Toller can’t stomach it—not after young Michael has just martyred himself for the environmental cause.
It can plausibly be argued that the real “action” in this film is essentially theological: Michael is an evangelist for a different kind of faith, and Toller takes up the cause not just for Michael’s sake but because he himself is now haunted by the specter of environmental doom. Toller even says, in voiceover, that he has found a new faith and has learned a new form of prayer.
Indeed, some of the best dialogue in the film is theological, taking place between Toller and positive-thinking Pastor Jeffers of Abundant Life (Cedric “The Entertainer” Kyles—who is not caricatured by Schrader and whose counsel to Toller is entirely measured and reasonable). Toller reveals to Jeffers his new panentheistic creed (“The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the earth proclaims his handiwork…” – Ps. 19), whereas Jeffers counters with the familiar Christian trope from Romans 8 about a doomed creation “groaning in childbirth” as it awaits God’s final deliverance.
Having committed himself to a theological framing for the film, Schrader plants yet more biblical snippets here and there. The text that Michael has instructed Toller to use at his memorial service is the very last message for humanity that the Hebrew Bible attributes to God. As the Book of Job draws to a close, God rehearses the mysteries and wonders of the natural world and rebukes Job (and by extension all of us mortals) for our presumption of knowledge and control: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? (etc.)”
And, as he plots a consummating act of self-immolating violence, Toller broods on Rev. 11:18:
The nations raged,
but your wrath has come,
and the time for judging the dead,
for rewarding your servants, the prophets
and saints and all who fear your name,
both small and great,
and for destroying those who destroy the earth.
It seems pretty clear that the spirit of radical mystic Thomas Merton hovers over this film. Merton’s name comes up twice in the screenplay, and both Schrader and his protagonist seem to resonate with the words that Merton wrote in 1962 to Ernesto Cardenal, the Nicaraguan theologian, poet, and revolutionary:
The world is full of great criminals with enormous power, and they are in a death struggle with each other. It is a huge gang battle, using well-meaning lawyers and policemen and clergymen as their front, controlling papers, means of communication, and enrolling everybody in their armies.
(May I suggest that the spirit of Bill McKibben hovers over “First Reformed” as well: the Bill McKibben who first warned us 30 years ago about what climate change was about to unleash.)
Because the environmental theme is so central to the film, it can feel as though Schrader is pulling his punches when he has the newly-widowed Mary function as a kind of deus ex machina to keep Toller from blowing the joint sky high during the anniversary event at First Reformed. Mary steps into the parsonage and discovers the half-crazed pastor (who’s late for the service) about to do the deed; she embraces him, and they’re filmed in a kind of swooning motion as we hear “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” being sung haltingly in the church next door.
One could read this juxtaposition as a hint that the only truly trustworthy arms are mortal, not divine. It seems more likely that Schrader wants to tell us that our mortal lives and loves do themselves partake of the divine.
But where does this leave the divine demand for equity (eagle-eyed filmgoers will have noted that Toller’s alarm clock on the day of reckoning bears the brand name “Equity”)? What about the God who vows to destroy “those who destroy the earth”?
A younger Paul Schrader might have chosen to end this film, which many critics are calling his masterpiece, in apocalyptic violence. But I don’t think it’s quite right to conclude that Schrader has simply mellowed in his eighth decade. The righteous indignation is still there, and who knows what Ernst and Mary might yet do for the environmental cause by remaining in the land of the living?