In his new film First Reformed Ethan Hawke is a Reformed pastor whose distress over climate change persuades him to don a suicide bomber vest that he’ll ignite at his historic church’s 250th commemoration.
First Reformed’s maybe unintentional subplot is the contrast between Hawke’s dying all white historic Mainline Protestant congregation and the multiracial evangelical megachurch that ominously owns the property. The sprawling megachurch, with a black pastor, is burbling with programs and thousands of people. Hawke’s severe, steepled white frame church attracts about a dozen on Sunday.
Skeptical of the megachurch’s authenticity, a disturbed young environmental zealot seeks Hawke’s counsel. He wants his wife to abort their unborn child, since the world is careening towards climate apocalypse. Hawke pleads that the unborn child is also part of sacred creation. The wife covertly reveals to Hawke discovery of her husband’s bombs and suicide vest, wondering whether to phone the police. Hawke, to protect the husband, tells her no, taking the cocktail of explosives.
The husband still kills himself in the woods, for Hawke to discover. Instead of recoiling from the young environmentalist’s apocalyptic despair, Hawke, depressed from his own personal crises, embraces climate disaster as his own defining narrative. The megachurch pastor impatiently implores Hawke away from his chronic Garden of Gethsemane angst. God has destroyed the world before, in The Flood, and the earth’s fate is in His hands, the megachurch pastor glibly insists.
Hawke despite His Reformed faith is unwilling to accede to Divine Sovereignty and instead plots his own drastic action. The historic church’s anniversary ceremony will include the environmentally insensitive businessman who funded the church renovation. So Hawke will don the suicide bomber vest beneath his clerical robe to blow up the church and all therein.
But when Hawke sees the pregnant widow of the late environmentalist, to whom he’s grown attracted, arrive at the church ceremony, he abandons his plot for mass murder and exchanges his bomb vest for barbed wire bloodily wrapped around his bare torso, beneath a white robe. The young woman, five months pregnant, finds him in his quarters behind the church and passionately smothers him in kisses and tight embrace, barbed wire notwithstanding.
So the pregnant widow repeats her cycle of attraction to suicidal psychiatric cases, and the pastor who’s her counselor, by his romantic exploitation of her, makes the Paige Patterson scandal seem benign. But their bizarre, dysfunctional tryst, even as he bleeds from encasement in barbed wire, is the film’s ostensibly romantic culmination.
In one scene, a young man at the megachurch complains to Hawke of his softness to welfare recipients, immigrants and Muslims. The megachurch pastor afterwards laments there are such right wing Christian “jihadists” among them. But the only violent jihadists among them are environmental zealots who think climate change justifies mass murder.
First Reformed is supposed to be nuanced and sophisticated but actually is very silly. Its one admirable insight is likely unintentional. Myopic apocalyptic zeal, whether religious or political, is dangerous. Had Hawke as pastor stayed rooted in his historic church’s theological traditions, he could have embodied godly hope instead of deadly bleakness. It’s a lesson for all churches today.