The Not-So-Buried Radical Chic of ‘First Reformed’

The environmental extremism of Paul Schrader's acclaimed film doesn't just express its hero's agony — it's the film's version of a policy statement.

First Reformed
Killer Films/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

The writer-director Paul Schrader has gotten some of the most ecstatic reviews of his career for “First Reformed,” and though I’m not in the rapturous/masterpiece camp about it (I think he’s made much better movies, like “Affliction” and “Auto Focus”), I agree with the praise more than not. The movie, which stars Ethan Hawke as an upstate New York minister who is undergoing a crisis of faith/health/isolation/midlife woe, is an austerely unabashed and compelling oddball, a pastiche of “Diary of a Country Priest” and “Winter Light” and what you might call the Schrader Paradigm, the one derived from “The Searchers” that he used (and made iconic) in his screenplay for “Taxi Driver,” and then in “Hardcore” and “Light Sleeper”: the loner who goes down a blood trail of redemption, trying to rescue a ravaged maiden who was taken by the forces of sin but remains, in his mind, unspoiled.

That said, there’s an additional component to “First Reformed” that, I think, accounts for some of the cartwheels that critics have done over it. The picture is a gravely absorbing cinematic-spiritual journey, but it’s also a message movie about environmental catastrophe in which the hero, emerging from his dour despair, begins to find a purpose in becoming radicalized. He gooses himself awake, and by the time the film reaches its nutty inspired climax, this somberly cautious and reflective man is flirting with strapping on a suicide vest. For a lot of indie-film buffs who consider themselves social justice warriors, that’s close to a feel-good ending.

Environmental message movies are, of course, a dime a dozen, but “First Reformed” is a sophisticated art-pulp fantasy that leads you, almost through a trap door, into the new mood of what might be called environmental fundamentalism. The film embraces the idea that the world as we know it isn’t just spoiled — it’s heading toward the apocalypse, and if we don’t do something about it we’re all guilty. Extreme action is required.

The notion that we’re now counting down the clock to the collapse of civilization, all because of man-made damage to the earth, isn’t new to movies; it’s the premise of every dystopian sci-fi film since “Blade Runner.” What’s different, and provocative, about “First Reformed” is that Schrader introduces these sentiments by handing them to a character whom the film presents, quite overtly, as depressed and disturbed and (as a consequence) warped in his vision. His name is Michael (Philip Ettinger), and in a scene that’s a quiet tour de force of acting and filmmaking and perception, he sits down with Hawke’s Reverend Toller and explains his agony.

The environment, says Michael, may now be too ruined to salvage. In his twitchy compulsive way, he offers facts, statistics, geophysical realities — all the evidence on the subject that informed people confront and absorb every day. Michael, though, lives each moment with a heightened fear and awareness of what he views as the impending disaster, surrounding himself with evidence of it, drowning himself in it. The result is that he wants his wife, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), to abort the child she’s carrying.

Here’s a question, one that is built, I think, into the very nature of a character who’s so alienated that he “won’t bring another child into this world.” The question is: Who is less on the side of life? People who exist in denial of today’s environmental crisis? Or those who are so out of denial that they believe we should stop perpetuating the human race?

I don’t think I’m alone in saying that a character like Michael (we’ve all met them) is the greater life denier. The very fact that he’s the only one who can see the truth is, in itself, an expression of his pathology. He views himself as an enlightened activist, but he’s also a messianic narcissist who has figured out a way to make climate change all about him.

Toller counsels Michael by saying what a lot of us would say: that despite the ravages to the environment that the human race has caused, all hope is not lost; that the future, as of now, is not so predictable; that mankind has always had to transcend the darkness; and that giving in to despair is, in itself, a form of death. (Not to mention the fact that the price of renewable energy sources has begun to lead, rather than follow, this struggle.)

Paul Schrader, I think, believes all these things. Yet in “First Reformed,” there’s a way in which he wants to have his over-the-cliff left-wing despair and eat it too. The Reverend Toller has major problems of his own: He sent his son to the Iraq War (the son was killed, which broke up the reverend’s marriage), and he’s been suffering for five months from a stomach ailment that is very likely cancer. By the second half of the movie, he’s drinking cocktails of whiskey and Pepto-Bismol — and more to the point, he’s searching for a mission to restore his sense of self. The disaster of the environment provides it. Instead of luring Michael back from the spiritual dead zone of radical absolutism, Toller begins to see the war for the planet’s future as his own war, and as the church’s. The power of “First Reformed” is that it’s a fever dream in which Toller passes through the looking glass of apocalyptic progressive belief.

As a lifelong leftist about the environment, I, of all people, should be the target demo for Toller’s transformation, and should have incredible sympathy for it. Yet watching “First Reformed,” it was hard for me to escape the feeling that the movie is indulging in a form of radical chic. As Michael demonstrates, this kind of thinking can evolve into an addiction, and in recent years some very smart people have become addicted to it — like Jonathan Franzen, who has argued that the raw science now renders it an incontrovertible fact that climate change has passed beyond the point where it can ever be reversed. He argues that we’re all, more or less, just sitting around waiting for the end times. The nihilistic environmental “policies” of our current president (more coal! more fracking! f—k the Paris climate accord!) would seem to be evidence that the doomsday arguments mounted by Franzen, or by the professional environmental scold Bill McKibben, must be heard and heeded. And maybe they must.

Yet extremism, as “First Reformed” reminds us, creates its own vortex of destruction. Michael turns out to be an eco-terrorist who passes the virus of his beliefs onto the Reverend Toller, and as Toller’s own crisis grows more flamboyant, he mirrors the arc of implosion experienced by Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver.” Part of the hypnotic amoral quality of that film is that it asks us to form an almost trancelike identification with Travis’s descent and, at the same time, to stand back and realize that we’re seeing a sociopath complete his withdrawal from the human race. That’s the spooky beauty of “You talkin’ to me?” The you in that cocky question (improvised by Robert De Niro) is just about anyone in the world who’s not Travis.

More or less the only character that doesn’t apply to is Jodie Foster’s Iris, the child prostitute Travis is out to save because, in his madness, that’s become his way of saving himself. In “First Reformed,” the equivalent of the Jodie Foster character — who was Schrader’s inferno-of-the-streets update of Natalie/Lana Wood’s kidnapped and ravaged girl in “The Searchers” — is, in an odd way, not a person at all but a phenomenon: the fate of the earth. The environment. That’s the fair maiden that is now being ravaged, and that Toller, ravaging his own body with metal thorns (and maybe bombs), must rescue. The end of the movie, which is gonzo and brilliant, fuses Bresson and Bergman with “Vertigo” and Schrader’s own elevated exploitation-film extravagance. The difference, and it’s a crucial one, is that this is a Travis Bickle who stands for ideas that the movie has come to embrace. Even though it should know better.