SidneyLumetSuxx’s review published on Letterboxd:
The crawlspace of the fictional church of First Reformed is empty.
Much like First Reformed church itself and much like, as the film suggests, much of Christianity itself.
For churches that are like First Reformed, modest and quaint and small, generally unafraid to tackle complex and controversial and sometimes taboo subjects, tend to have emptier pews. For churches like the fictional church of Abundant Life (First Reformed's parent church), large and populous and prosperous, generally afraid to tackle complex and controversial and sometimes taboo subjects, tend to have emptier spirituality.
This is what bothers writer-director Paul Schrader and what he attempts to convey in this film of his.
Why is it that the churches that try to talk about what matters are often empty and why don't the churches that don't talk about what matters not empty?
The crawlspace of the fictional church of First Reformed was used as a hideout for escaped slaves; the church was along the Underground Railroad. This was a time when churches were active in important issues, when they not only stood up for Something but took action on that very Something. I guess what Schrader is saying with this film is that the Big Issue of today for churches to be involved in is climate change.
Why aren't churches talking about environmental concerns? Specifically, why aren't they talking how responsible are we?
Well, unfortunately, Schrader doesn't take an honest enough approach to this. We are only given the activist perspective – apart from two very brief scenes. During the first of those two, this at a pancake restaurant, Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) of First Reformed asks Pastor Joel Jeffers (Cedric The Entertainer) of Abundant Life and Ed Balq (???), a generous tither to Abundant Life, a question that was asked to him by a troubled man that had recently come to his sermon: “Will God forgives us for what we have done to His creation?” He's talking about deforestation, fracking, pollution, etc. Ed Balq, who also happens to own an oil company or whatever, says: “It's a pretty complicated issue.” That's the only “defense” we get from the other side in this scene. The second of these two very brief scenes happens in private between Jeffers and Toller in Jeffer's office, when he asks the same question again, this time using a Bible verse, but Jeffers answers back with another Bible verse. To which Toller retorts, “So you're saying God wants to destroy His creation only so that He can restore it again?” Jeffer says, “He did it once. For 40 days and 40 nights.”
This is all we get from the other side of the debate. That's it.
The entire film is Toller complaining about how the Church seems so apathetic to all this but never a scene of him actually trying to find any answers. The internet is at our full disposal; if we want to know the other side to a debate, we can easily find out and understand it, even if we don't agree with it. First Reformed The Film doesn't even present the alternative perspective and disagree with it – it refuses to show the alternative perspective aside whatsoever (aside from those two little moments that practically don't count). Part of me thinks it might not even wanna know the other side's views.
However, maybe that's the point (but it's not) - Toller never truly searching honestly - because he is a very flawed human being. He's admittedly prideful, a possible alcoholic, a potentially soon-to-be cancer patient, a justifiably sad man struck by loss of his son and the subsequent divorce with his wife. Moreover, the film also makes eco-activists, or more broadly politics itself, look like its own kind of religious zealousness; the man that asked Toller the essential question of the film talks about being a martyr for his cause and the film's third act echoes this notion, although hopefully it doesn't justify it since it does share the same despair and, quite frankly, paranoia that Toller struggles with.
It's sort of fun to see it a way Schader did not intend, as an examination of how anyone can be radicalized by ideology, particular this ideology that has gotten pretty vehement and so far up its own buttocks, because it very well can be interpreted as such.
I did get some positive things from this film, though.
There is an emphasis that churches shouldn't compromise their beliefs for the sake of political power, Left or Right, because truth is the Church should stand up for Things and I'm glad the film doesn't poop on Christians or Christianity, God or religion in general either – despite being so upset about things regarding those things – in fact, it even acknowledges churches have been beneficial and useful (which is refreshing). My take on its ambiguous finale, in case one is wondering, is one of hope. Details would be spoiler-tory.
On a technical level this was a very well-made flick too. The cast is superb. Ethan Hawke? Expectedly awesome. Amanda Seyfried? Shockingly excellent. Cedric The Entertainer? Unexpectedly, but not surprisingly, great. The editing and pacing is also top-notch. The cinematophery, more or less, is very European and done so nicely (although Schrader still needs to learn to not put the camera so close to people). I did not see this coming from Paul Schrader. For I am known here on Letterboxd as a “Schrader hater” (even though my username displays where my true disdain lies).