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December 17th, 2018

Now Playing in Select Cities: First Reformed: ****

Environmentalism is a religion.

I don’t mean that as an insult, just an observation. “First Reformed” is the first time I’ve seen an Environmentalist make this observation, too.

Environmentalism has a deity: Mother Earth. It has a devil: Corporations. It has a clergy: Scientists. It has a story that explains how the world began: the Big Bang. And it has a story that explains how the world will soon end: Climate Change.

I am a Conservationist. I no longer have an Amazon account, I eat very little meat, I have a small apartment, and I try to use as little of the earth’s resources as possible. However, when I hear people claiming that they know the future and that it is catastrophically terrible, that’s a doomsday religion – and I want no part of it.

Christians have the Book of Revelation. Environmentalists believe that Armageddon has begun. And that it’s humanity’s fault. That is super depressing.

“First Reformed” is a magnificent, artful drama about one man’s struggle with Environmentalism. Writer/director Paul Schrader begins with the clear assumption that corporations are destroying the planet. His film is about the despair that this realization causes.

Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Toller. When we meet him, he’s not doing all that well. He is the minister for a tiny old church in Upstate New York with a dwindling congregation. He is dying from stomach cancer and he is avoiding treatment and continuing to drink.

The story begins when one of Rev. Toller’s parishioners asks him to council her depressed husband Michael. Michael argues that the earth is quickly reaching a tipping point of destruction and that martyrdom or total despair are the only reasonable responses. Toller tries to convince Michael to search for Jesus and love and hope.

Then a darkly funny thing happens. Michael wins the argument. Rev. Toller becomes a fanatical new convert to the Environmentalist faith. And the main focus of his righteous rage is the Balq Corporation: the local manufacturing firm that is sponsoring his church’s anniversary celebration.

Writer/director Paul Schrader does an amazing job of showing us the inner workings of Toller’s conversion and building the tension and dread to a fever pitch.

Ever wonder how a decent religious man becomes a terrorist? “First Reformed” answers that question with stark clarity.

Schrader wrote the 1976 classic “Taxi Driver” and the similarities are unmistakable. Rev. Toller is a 21st Century version of Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle.

When we meet both men, they are desperately lonely and self-loathing. Then they undergo a change of mind that refocuses their depression outwardly into self-righteousness and judgment and wrath.

“First Reformed” is a first-rate character study and a painfully honest study of faith. Plus it has an ending that is guaranteed to get you talking.

This is an important movie.

It is the first film that explores the religion of Environmentalism from the point of view of a true believer. It makes a clear statement that extremism for a good cause is still really bad.

And it dares to ask the question: whether the end of the world is coming or not, is it worth it to believe something so depressing?

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