The new movie First Reformed is being lauded by critics and described as the magnum opus of director and screenwriter Paul Schrader. He found fame with his screenplay for the 1976 classic Taxi Driver, and his movies often feature alienated protagonists who grapple with the evil in society and in themselves. This film is one of Schrader’s most personal, and charts the disillusionment, despair and apostasy of a pastor from the Dutch Reformed tradition — the style of Protestantism in which Schrader was raised, but later abandoned.
The symbolism of First Reformed is complex and open to interpretation. But if comments made by Schrader are any indication, his latest work is a sobering testament to the dark, increasingly dangerous religion of leftist politics.
Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) lives in quiet agony, preaching to the smattering of parishioners who attend his church on Sunday morning. Throughout the week he gives tours of the austere 18th-century sanctuary, which is derided as “the museum” by the pastor (Cedric Kyles) of the local megachurch that funds him. Toller lives like a lonely monk in his unfurnished rectory, scribbling thoughts of hope and despair in his journal between shots of whiskey. At length we learn he had been a military chaplain, whose marriage collapsed when he lost a son in Iraq, and whose faith is likewise threatening to buckle. Often he wanders the church graveyard and repairs its fallen tombstones — the emblems of a dying faith in which he is losing hope.
“If only I could pray,” he laments to himself.
When a pregnant congregant named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) seeks counsel for her troubled husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), Toller finds an alternative to his decrepit traditional Christianity. Michael introduces him to the catechism of climate change — a faith that addresses the contemporary political issues Schrader cares about, and comes complete with its own prophets of doom, its own activist martyrs and its own unquestioned orthodoxy. Like Schrader, who has claimed he does not believe humanity will survive the century, Michael believes the end is nigh. The original sin incurring this looming judgment is corporate capitalism, which has merged with right-wing American evangelicalism to render them indistinguishable. Against these Schrader uses his film to issue a snarling indictment.
When Toller discovers that his own church is underwritten by a major polluter, he obtains an epiphany. Terminally ill from the pollution he has inflicted upon himself, he embraces the dogma of despair. His great dilemma becomes the choice between suicide and the mass killing of those he deems guilty. Having lost faith in the traditional Christian God, Toller dethrones Him and seeks to install himself as the judge and executioner of those heretics that transgress his new environmentalist gospel. “I have found a new form of prayer,” he says, overlooking a ravaged landscape while strapped in a suicide vest. The movie’s cryptic, unsatisfying ending will leave many viewers scratching their heads, wondering if Schrader is actually saying what he seems to be saying.
Is Schrader hiding behind his art a radical political message? It may be telling that his protagonist shares his name with Ernst Toller, a Marxist revolutionary and playwright. Three days after the 2016 presidential election, Schrader posted on Facebook that Trump’s victory was a call to arms. “I felt the call to violence in the 60s and I feel it now again,” he wrote. “This attack on liberty and tolerance will not be solved by appeasement. Obama tried that for eight years. We should finance those who support violence [sic] resistance. We should be willing to take arms.” Schrader closed his comments by commending to his readers the example of John Brown, the radical 19th-century abolitionist whose bloody solutions to social ills helped plunge the nation into civil war. (It is likely not a coincidence that Rev. Toller reflects upon his church’s abolitionist past when plotting his murderous vengeance.)
Further reflection led Schrader to delete his post and blame it on “a couple of cabernets and half an Ambien.” But the dark themes of First Reformed call into question his repentance. On the contrary, it is one of the clearest depictions yet that some on the progressive left have replaced Christianity with a new religion. Fueled by raging despair and an apocalyptic fear of climate change, this radical new faith possesses the same self-assured dogmatism exhibited by the severest strains of the one Schrader fled in his youth. But it is untempered by mercy, hope or the humble reluctance to cast the first stone.
At the very least, First Reformed acknowledges that the end of this new religion is madness and blood.
Jon Brown is a freelance writer from Asheville, North Carolina. He is currently studying journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.