The opening scene of “First Reformed” fades in from black to gradually illuminate a small white church. From there the film only gets darker.
The tired and ill Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke, “Boyhood”) manages a struggling church in upstate New York. When a couple in his congregation asks for his counsel over a possible abortion, Toller descends into a crisis of faith. However, climate change, not abortion, becomes the subject of his troubles. The film begins with sincere, deep dialogue between reverend and parishioner. Toller and Michael (Philip Ettinger, “Indignation”), a recently jailed environmental activist and non-believer in the church, engage in a frank conversation about the state of Earth’s climate. Michael has reached a state of despair so deep he does not want his wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again”) to bring a child into this doomed society. The extended static conversation between the two men deceptively promises a slow-paced, entirely introspective film. However, “First Reformed” turns into an environmental-activism thriller, building momentum slowly and then all at once, just as climate change has as we damage our planet toward the point of no return.
As he accepts the reality of his failing health, Toller also rewrites the relationship between religion and science. Rather than pinning the two against each other, writer-director Paul Schrader (“Taxi Driver”) shows these forces as working in harmony. There’s no battle between Charles Darwin’s theory of biological evolution and the Bible’s descriptions of how God created the world and all its beings, as one finds in schools throughout America. Instead, Schrader argues, concerning the issue of climate change, religious people — particularly Christians — should protect nature, or God’s creation, not destroy it or await His saving grace for all men’s sins; a notion in line with the recommendations of 97 percent of scientists.
As a result of this development, Toller becomes the martyr for the cause to save our planet. He is the product of a convergence between science and religion. He is a human being living in a state of passive denial and passive resistance, eventually pushed to an act of extremity it’s a wonder the majority of us have not already reached. As a director, Schrader does not coddle his audience. He does not soften the truth that certain catastrophe awaits most of us in the near future and the rest of us now. In a stunningly devastating montage, Schrader contrasts natural beauty with the polluted hell-scape we have created.
Although Toller discovers a conspiracy theory — that big-energy corporations are undermining efforts to save this planet for their own personal gain — no part of his discovery is fiction. His journey to understanding is not just a crisis of faith with his own church, but with the whole of humanity. As he realizes his own insignificance and helplessness to make change through individual action, the only option becomes clear. The question that haunts Reverend Toller will haunt all those who watch “First Reformed”: “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?”