Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2017) appears to offer an enormously appealing return to Christian social teachings. In this secular age, surely a return to Christ, in combination with some manner of left-wing doctrine, is just the sort of thing we need for a true salvation: of our souls, of our wounded social order, even of Earth itself. But if this is the message of the movie, it is only in spite of itself, for First Reformed’s account of the very structure of belief is highly ambiguous.
In the opening scenes of the film we are presented with two seemingly contradictory religious elements: on the one hand, money-grabbing evangelicals, content to allow their megachurches to be funded by dirty money from big business (the fossil fuel industry, in this case), and, on the other hand, a long-standing Christian concern with self-sacrifice in the service of a proper care for the elements of creation. First Reformed is about the disappointment of Christianity in our age: how churches are corrupted by the secular world in which they are uncomfortably ensconced.
The main character, a priest played by Ethan Hawke, is a pained figure, passing through the after-effects of a hurtful breakup, whose body, we discover, is riddled with cancer. He works in what at first appears to be an intensely austere Protestant church: the monochromatic shots of the priest’s black habit, the whitewashed church walls, and the greyscale of the surrounding landscape, all rather heavy-handedly bring home the point that we are far removed the vibrant vitalism of Roman Catholicism. And the First Reformed Church is failing: turnout at services is dismal; the creaking old church organ finally breaks and the bathrooms are out of service and with no money to pay for a plumber. Soon, however, we learn, almost in the key of Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (i.e. through the hyper-realistic intrusion of a brand name), that First Reformed is owned by a megachurch corporation; we’re not so much in the ascetic realm of Martin Luther after all, but in the land of Mammon: this somewhat severe place of worship is in fact just the offshoot of a nearby corporate megachurch that likes to trot out the centuries-old church building of First Reformed on special occasions (when throwing glitzy gatherings of various corrupted business and “community” leaders), or to sell tourist trinkets to visiting suburban families with waning theological interest but with money to spend and a yearning for authenticity.
Though he’s not without winning traits, Ethan Hawke’s character is in many ways deeply flawed: he drinks to excess, his knowledge of religious doctrine seems middling at best, he confesses to no longer being capable of prayer (though, as he astutely notes, “the desire to pray is itself a type of prayer”), and we learn that he received this position after long military service in Iraq, more as a recognition of his heroic status as a military veteran—the US is a warrior society—than out of any recognition of his deep Christian learning. Already this is a rather depressing scene, then: here is a man who doesn’t have much of a flock to shepherd—the same handful of worshippers shows up each Sunday—and anyway isn’t very well-suited to tending it. To make matters worse, he’s dying from a tumor, whose existence he initially refuses to acknowledge, much less seek treatment for, preferring instead to douse himself in whiskey and late-night sessions hunched over a laptop researching the ecological calamities that have been brought to his attention by one of his long-suffering, suicidal parishioners, who is a kind of eco-terrorist Hollywood stock character - a Biblical Bernie Bro. It is a mark of our age that Hollywood, even the moderately “left” Hollywood that First Reformed would seem to spring from, has little inkling how to portray political activists such that they can appear to be anything but bomb-toting lunatics - fringe extremists who seem only too eager to resort to carnage rather than, say, non-violent direct action. But that is no obstacle for a movie-making left that seems to delight in broad-brush caricatures: the capitalists are all bad, all the way down, which is more perhaps more palatable a portrayal than the fact that their opponents seem to be fanatics all the way down, too.
Paradoxically, what this movie gets right, then, is (inadvertently) its inability to portray anything like true belief: whether these be religious or political, belief as such is in this movie itself highly suspect. Those who believe are necessarily portrayed as dangerous, self-destructive types. In a way this is a deeply subversive message because it mirrors a social fact that holds true of our age: truly to hold onto any sort of coherent system of belief is already to have set oneself on a course against our age. There is something about secular capitalist modernity that seems to block off the possibility of overt belief, this movie suggests: what society seems to require of us instead is the tacit acceptance of unconscious dogmas that always seem to be capitalistic ones. Nothing could be easier in our world than to be a non-believing believer, that is, to passively accept the enormous ideological baggage of our age, which uniquely sells itself to us as the dogma of non-belief.
But now more than ever do we need some firm set of dogmas, and it is the great merit of this film that it suggests that we look into two central ideational currents: Christian social teachings and left-socialist ecology - or perhaps better yet, some combination of the two. It is this explosive combination of Christ and ecological socialism that First Reformed toys with, even if it ultimately makes for an unsatisfying filmic experience, and even if its expression in anything like concrete political action is finally left unresolved. But the ideas in this movie are good; its intentions are well-meaning: Christianity properly conceived equates to stewardship for the things of Creation within a framework of radical egalitarianism; we can at the very least discern this lesser strand of thought in the long Christian tradition. And perhaps, this movie suggests, this subterranean strand could be brought up to the surface of capitalist modernity.