‘First Reformed’ – Film Review and Analysis

Man’s struggle with God can almost be as endearing yet painful as his struggle against man. If there is one way to sum up the excellent film, ‘First Reformed’, that would be it. First Reformed (2017) focuses on the environment, one’s faith, and the struggle to find hope when things seem rather bleak. “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to the world?”, a troubled environmental activist asks Pastor Ernst Toller and the Pastor replies to his congregant, “Who can know the mind of God?”

While this movie did not receive any Oscar awards, the acting by Ethan Hawke (Pastor Ernst Toller) and also by Amanda Seyfried (Mary) is excellent as well as the cinematography, the adapted screenplay by Director Paul Schrader which helps this film earn its critical acclaim and some Independent Spirit award nominations as well as one Academy Award nomination. I still believe Mr. Hawke was snubbed from getting an Oscar nomination since this film’s performance was one of the best he has ever done and deserved more praise. In many of his films, I find him to be one of the best actors of his generation and able to produce genuine emotion regardless of the situation his character finds himself in.

In ‘First Reformed’, Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) finds himself faced with difficult questions surrounding his faith, morality, the environment in 2017, and what lies ahead in the future for humanity. These are weighty questions for anyone to deal with let alone a pillar of a community like Toller finds himself to be in Snowbridge, New York as the head pastor for the colonial era First Reformed church that dates back to the time of British colonization and the underground railroad movement later on.

This historical church is seen to be losing its membership and interest and Pastor Toller has to resort to touristic gimmicks and a small gift shop to help make ends meet to keep the church going. There is a noticeable parallel to the decline of Christianity in terms of active members of the Christian church in the United States so a fictional movie such as this one has some real-life parallels that seem plausible. The crisis of faith in churches in certain communities has a coinciding similarity with Toller’s own faith in God and in himself. He is an alcoholic struggling to find meaning and purpose in his life at the beginning of the film.

While making the church more touristy, he has also made the church more spiritual as well instead of its Calvinist origins. He sticks more to sermons than to scriptures and has enlisted the financial backing and ownership of an evangelical megachurch in nearby Albany, New York, which is likely to take over the church in the near future much to Toller’s apprehension. As we go through the film, we peel back the curtain on who this pastor is and like any of us, he has his own personal flaws and past sins but has also suffered for them and wishes to make amends in some way.

We find out that Pastor Toller lost his son, Joseph, recently while serving in the Iraq War and feels guilt for having told him to enlist having come from a military background himself as a chaplain. During that difficult time, he committed adultery and started drinking but also found his faith again to then become a pastor at First Reformed after going through grieving his son’s loss. However, a chance encounter with one of his congregants and his wife puts his faith in God and humanity to the ultimate test.

Mary, a devout congregant and believer in God and her skeptical husband, Michael, a stern environmentalist and becoming increasingly radical meet with Pastor Toller separately in their house. Mary has concerns about Michael’s well-being and tells the Pastor they expect to have a child soon. Michael is sincerely struggling with the fact that he will be a father soon when the world’s ecosystems are steadily collapsing, sea levels are rising, and the effects of global climate change are to be felt beginning in the next few decades. For any of us watching this pivotal scene including Pastor Toller himself, there are no easy answers from God or from man either regarding the future of humanity. Ernest finds it difficult to comfort Michael but asks to keep seeing him and to look out for Mary and the unborn child.

This particular scene leads to the rest of the film’s deeper dive into the effects of capitalism and greed on the environment as well as the relationship between big industry and religious institutions. Pastor Toller’s awakening from meeting with Mary and Michael leads him to questioning why the environmental situation is so dire, who is responsible for it, what can be done to stop it, and how far should measures be taken. Because the Pastor has no easy answers for Michael, he starts looking for them and is obviously dismayed by what he finds out regarding the local environmental situation in his community and how greed, industry, and the lack of stewardship for his community have led humanity down towards an unsustainable path.

Without spoiling the film, The Pastor struggles with what he can do as one individual to counteract the forces aligned against good stewardship of the planet and what a person can do to draw attention to the problem. Not only is there a crisis of faith in God but in each other and what is being done to the only planet we have ever known. The Pastor, with certain health issues related to alcoholism, is reconciling with the fact that he is mortal and what kind of impact he wants to leave behind.

He is comforted by the fact that Mary is still a believer in the future and wants to have a child even with the future of the planet looking relatively bleak. Pastor Toller knows however that he has the responsibility now to hold those accountable for their actions whether it’s the Evangelical church, a big industrialist doing environmental damage, or even himself when he strays from helping those in his congregation who need it the most.

‘First Reformed’ poses a lot of weighty questions and it is an extremely timely film in terms of its messages and themes. It is bleak because it has to be and raises a lot of issues that we have neglected regarding the environment and now we may be finding that time to make a difference in this escalating problem is running out. ‘First Reformed’ asks us how an ordinary man of faith yet a pillar of the community so respond to those in his congregation who are in despair regarding environmental damage and destruction.

How far should he go and how radical should he be to get people to listen and understand what is being done? Can love and faith overcome the desire to do harm and take revenge against those who have sinned against the planet? Like any good film, there are no easy answers and the director does not condone or condemn the thoughts or possible actions that Pastor Toller weights leading up to the climax of the last scene.

What this film does an excellent job of is warning its viewers about the consequences of greed, ignorance, lack of stewardship, valuing profits over the health and well-being of people, and the unholy alliance of organized religion and big industries. There are numerous fingers to point at regarding the worsening state of climate change going on in the world currently but perhaps those who watch this excellent film will realize that the finger should be pointed at ourselves first about the damage being done. Perhaps that kind of introspective thinking is what it will take for massive external action to occur and for the worst of the consequences to be avoided.

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‘There Will Be Blood’ – Film Review and Analysis

‘There Will Be Blood’ is a masterful, enticing film about how greed, corruption, and arrogance can destroy a man’s soul. Definitely one of the best films of this young 21st century, There Will Be Blood will be remembered for generations to come for its’ acting, cinematography, and direction. There are a number of things that make this film memorable including its’ cast, director, and musical composition.

In addition to all of that, the plot is written well, the characters are intriguing, and themes are still timely when compared to the modern era. While not the most popular film when it was first released, ‘There Will Be Blood’ has become a bit of a cult classic since it came out in 2007, over ten years ago. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won two of them for ‘Best Cinematography’ and ‘Best Actor’ for Daniel Day-Lewis.

Considered the best Actor of his generation, Day-Lewis is a unique talent who can transform him into vastly different performing roles and deliver outstanding and award-winning performances. In addition to winning the Best Actor award for ‘There Will Be Blood’, Day-Lewis also won Academy awards for the films ‘Lincoln’ and ‘My Left Foot’, which were the exact opposite kind of roles to play as an actor.

Daniel Day-Lewis is able to stay in character for months or years on end to totally immerse him in both the story and the lines that he memorizes. It’s a truly impressive accomplishment to win one Academy Award but Day-Lewis was able to win three and is nominated for a 4th award for his most recent role in ‘Phantom Thread.’ Other noteworthy aspects of this film is the directing by Paul Thomas Anderson and the musical score by Jonny Greenwood who both set the tone for this movie’s themes and plot line.

Unbeknownst to most, the film’s screenplay and overall plot was adapted from American novelist Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! Which focuses on the oil boom in the western United States during the late 19th to early 20th centuries, and the men who made themselves wealthy from the discovery. Instead of covering a topic as deep and complicated about the oil rush over a few decades in a dramatic film, Paul Thomas Anderson chooses a protagonist named Daniel Plainview (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) to be the lens through which the audience witnesses the birth of the lifeblood for the modern American economy.

Anderson’s goals for this film in my opinion were to show how the U.S. and its’ oilmen were not so innocent when it came to the pursuit of wealth. In the quest to reap the profits of the oil boom, there was a lot of backstabbing, double-crossing, and short-shrifting between different competing companies. This film takes a hard look at how the protagonist Daniel Plainview loses his soul in the pursuit of wealth and prestige. In addition, There Will Be Blood is an examination of the push – pull relationship between capitalism and religion and how they are often linked together to pursue their goals.

There Will Be Blood’s setting takes place at the turn of the 20th century. Daniel Plainview, the main protagonist starts out as an ordinary silver miner looking to become wealthy from that pursuit. However, this changes in 1902 when he discovers oil near Los Angeles, California, and decides to create his own drilling company. At the beginning of the film, Daniel can seem to be like any normal prospector of that era and also selfless in the fact that he adopts the son of a fellow co-worker who was killed in an accident. The boy is named H.W. and Daniel seems to care and cherish the child. However, the audience soon finds out that it is not love that Daniel strives to have in his life but rather wealth and influence in the oil industry.

Daniel promotes himself as a ‘family man’ largely in order to curry favor with other businessmen and potential employees of his company. The main antagonist to Daniel is Eli Sunday, a preacher in nearby Little Boston, California, who wishes to get a good sum of money from Plainview in order to build his church. In exchange, Daniel gets access to all of the land under the town in order to build wells to drill for oil where there is a vast amount underneath their feet. Despite the fact that they have an agreement in the exchange of land for money, Daniel betrays the deal and berates Eli for his religious beliefs and the exploitation of his son’s deafness for his own financial gain. It is clear to the audience that both men are out for themselves but need each other in order to acquire wealth or a religious following.

Such as has been the case at times throughout history, religion and capitalism have been intertwined in an unholy marriage leading to disastrous results. Daniel uses Eli in order to get all of the oil wealth from under the town while lying about the amount of money he would give Eli or the town itself to build up their infrastructure. Eli uses Daniel’s money to build his mega-church but exploits H.W.’s misfortune of becoming deaf as a means to accuse Daniel of being a ‘bad father’ and a ‘sinner’ even though the freak accident was out of his control.

If I had to highlight two example scenes for somebody to check out before watching this movie, it would be the ‘I’m an oil man’ speech by Daniel Plainview to the townsfolk of Little Boston. You can see from this speech and from the overall scene that he does not care so much for the people in the town or what he can do to help them. The music combined with his lying through the teeth boasts show that he is not being genuine and is in this pursuit of oil for himself and himself alone.

“I’m an oil man speech”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AHz-zZoBnbc

The other scene to highlight from this film is known as the ‘Fire’ scene, which is a brilliantly shot and executed scene. It’s amazing in its’ portrayal of the discovery of mass amounts of oil under a well indicating that Daniel Plainview is to become a very wealthy man. However, it’s at the same point in this scene where he realizes that his son, H.W. is to become deaf due to an accident near the well. At this scene, you can see Daniel change as a person to become more focused on his future as a ‘oilman’ than one as a ‘family man’ to H.W., his adopted son.

‘There Will Be Blood’ Fire scene: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GKJAH-XBNNs&t=240s

Throughout the film’s events, you can see that Daniel does not care about family or religion at all. While he enjoys the company of H.W., he holds over the fact that he is not his biological son and does not want to give him any financial support to strike it out on his own. Daniel has no care for organized religion besides getting permission to gain workers and oil from underneath the town’s feet while contributing the bare minimum to Eli’s church or the rest of the town. As his last name reveals, ‘Plainview’ has a plain view about human nature that is very pessimistic and jaded.

Daniel only cares to get as much out of people as to benefit himself and his company personally. You wonder though by the end of the film what is in it for Daniel besides money and alcohol. He may have become a wildly successful prospector and oilman but what does it all mean if he is left alone and friendless. If you’re going to go into business, why not do it for the benefit of others and not just yourself? However, the view of Daniel Plainview is that life is a zero-sum game and that you can’t trust anybody but yourself.

Eli Sunday, while a pragmatic preacher and someone who seems to care about the townsfolk of which who are part of his church, still does a deal gone south with Daniel Plainview in the pursuit of easy money. Eli is easily bullied by Daniel but still goes around trying to convince him to change his ways and repent as a sinner. While Eli means well and wants the best for the church and his town, he does not go about it in the right way leaving him at the mercy of Plainview.

While Eli Sunday and Daniel Plainview are both excellent at what they do, you have to consider that they are both very flawed human beings. They may have built a popular church to preach in (Sunday) or massive oil wells to enrich themselves (Plainview) but life will still be lacking for them if they have no love and compassion surrounding those achievements. That may be the main message for the person viewing this film. Wealth, notoriety, and personal prestige are not everything in life and that there are other things that you should focus on that really touch your soul as a human being.

“There’s a whole ocean of oil under our feet, and nobody can get at it except for me!” There Will Be Blood is an excellent story about extreme capitalism and religion gone wrong. Both protagonists pursuit of their own selfish goals hurts the other characters in this film. However, what would modern America be like without the preachers and the oilmen? While not as dramatic as this fictional movie, the discovery of oil and the spread of the gospel are intertwined with American history.