It may be untrue to say that most people are looking for meaning in their lives. In all honesty, the vast preponderance of people probably do not give much thought to anything other than fulfilling their immediate perceived needs.
However, for those who have ideals of any stripe (whether they be religious, political of philosophical), the mere existence of an ideal in one’s mind rises one above himself and into the realm of eternal truths. The existence of an ideal belies a truth external to the individual and therefore of a literal, transcendent existence. Even the materialists and existentialists, who would on one hand appear to have a very low view of eternal truths, are themselves making absolute, transcendent truth claims.
It would be fair to say that even though those with ideals sense such truths, that does not mean they have a very firm grasp on them. Paul Schraeder, the writer of “First Reformed,” would be one of those people.
The movie is not a recasting of Pontius Pilate’s profound question, “What is truth.” Rather, it is a movie about despair and hope.
There are points where the movie almost offers a compelling comment on the issue (it avoids any answers), but usually something abrupt occurs in the script to prevent this from occurring. One example of this is the prematurely aged Ethan Hawke attempting to answer why a “good” Christian can lose his job. The character he plays starts making some good observations about Christ not promising prosperity and appears to be about to say the it was through suffering that great goodness came, but then he is interrupted by a “teenager” (played by a balding actor who appears to be in his 30s) that gives a Trumpian speech about Christ not being a softie and not caring if “we offend the Muslims.”
Perhaps it is on purpose that the script almost addresses matters of substance, but then allows an interruption to occur to derail our way to an answer to despair. An intelligent writer could do this to show how worldly distractions, sinfulness, and ignorance all play a role in making what is intelligible, unintelligble. However, in my honest opinion, this is giving the writer of the film way too much credit.
Ultimately, the reason why “First Reformed” cannot provide an answer to despair is because the film lacks a cogent ideology. Conservative viewers are obsessed with the movie’s environmentalism, but in reality this is not an environmentalist movie. Cares about the environment, in fact, provide a pretext for confusion and apprehension. The environment is treated as something akin to the Judgement in the Scriptures. Its coming if you like it or not, there is no avoiding it, and apart from a distinct understanding of God’s grace its not going to end well for anyone.
So, I do not view this as an environmental movie at all. The impending “ecopalypse” is merely the movie’s analogue for the apocalypse. In fact, this one aspect of the movie, though treated in a very clumsy if not lame way, is at least an intelligent Biblical allegory and I don’t think anyone has picked up on it.
Nevertheless, the real problem with this movie is the answer it gives to what is the answer to despair in light of the pending apocalypse. I did think it was clever it did not reduce everything to defeating the “bad guy” or solving the problem. The reverend’s suicide mission is aborted and as the movie reaches its crazed ending, it is apparent that the protagonists will do nothing to actually save the environment.
So, the movie consigns itself to despair. Despair is unavoidable. Judgement will come. It won’t be good.
Not that I know much about movie-making, but the film does give the eleventh grade portrayal of existential philosophy. With no hope in the universe, the characters find meaning in their love for one another. Though this is creepy (a young, very pregnant woman embracing an old man), it is a kind of common trope in popular culture. Robin Williams starred in a movie about a man leaving heaven to be with his loved one in Hell. It would be superfluous to list every example of a movie where “everything sucks but at least we have our love.” The philosophy of the movie ultimately does not rise above standard romantic-comedy fare.
Hence, the end of the movie encapsulates its vapidness. Unable to give a real answer to despair, Schaeder holds out a hedonistic hope. Its a feel-good mentality, where other people make us feel good ourselves. Granted, most movie-goers would not view “true love” as hedonistic, but in my analysis the looking for the answers to our deepest questions in human relationships is ultimately shallow and found wanting.
In fact, if we are honest with ourselves, it is not the environment or any impending doom that gives us our despair, but it is the deficiency of our relationships. In the movie, the reverend lost his wife and son. His love interest lost her husband. In our own lives, we merely look at our own disappointments with the people we love. Quite frankly, the vast preponderance of our own insecurities and psychological issues are due to our upbringings and significant others.
The answer the movie gives to despair is completely unrealistic, because it in fact poses the cause as the solution. We cannot be fulfilled by other people, no matter how much we love them. At worst they are the ones that can bring us to even deeper depths of despair and at best, they misdirect our attentions away from our hope.
This is the nauseating part of the film–not the environmentalism, but its lack of hope. The obvious answer to everything in this Christian-themed movie is Jesus Christ. He is our hope. But the movie not surprisingly misses this.
When the reverend and others ask whether God can forgive us for destroying His creation, the answer is never explicitly given. The implication is the answer is “no.”
However, the polluted nature of our environment, relationships, and our very minds may be solved with Jesus Christ. Christ destroyed the power of sin so that it lost its sting. Christ conquered death. Christ took our sins as far as the east is from the west.
But Christ did more than pay a debt–a concept the movie cannot get past. The only solutions the reverend poses are wrapping himself with barbed wire to atone for his wickedness with pain or to blow up the wicked in a terrorist attack.
Christ said, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). The answer to the movie’s depiction of despair was right in front of all of our faces: Abundant Life (the name of the Cedric the Entertainer’s megachurch that appears to own “First Reformed.”) There is nothing more abundant than a life of not only forgiveness, but participation in the life of Christ.
Christ is God. Christ created life and He is the Immortal One. Christianity teaches a union with Jesus Christ is our eternity, an experience that begins in this life, and which allows us to transcend our earthly natures and experience a divine one.
Hope is not found in embracing one another, but in embracing Christ. An infinite God cannot disappoint for He is greater than all things and His depths are beyond searching out.
Schraeder simply did not have the ideology to offer to allow his movie to rise above the philosophy that undergirds most entertainment: “love conquers all.” So, despite the raving reviews and pseudo-intellectuals finding the movie to be of great profundity any observer would notice that it is shallow, answers no hard questions, and ultimately lacks the ideals to give us any real answers.
We Christians believe a life in Christ offers an answer for despair. Sadly for Schraeder, he is unaware of what that looks like and cannot portray it in film.