Culture

'First Reformed': It's Ethan Hawke as a Hot Priest Pondering the Apocalypse

Stuck at home due to coronavirus? Join our writers and readers as they discuss the latest A24 film on Netflix.
19 March 2020, 9:00am
Ethan Hawke
Photo credit: A24
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A VICE UK column that fills the isolation for those self-isolating due to the coronavirus pandemic​. We’re watching and discussing a film with readers every week.

In our inaugural Corona Film Club feature, we – myself, VICE UK Associate Editor, Ryan Bassil, VICE UK Staff Writer, Lauren O’Neill, and you, our dear reader – watched First Reformed. Spoilers abound below, obvs. If you haven’t seen it and want to catch up, you can do so here on Netflix__. Want to suggest our next film? Email coronafilmclub@vice.com .

Ryan Bassil: This week, the UK government effectively enforced self isolation as a preventive measure against the coronavirus spread. We’ve been advised to stay away from the pub and the club. Non-essential travel should be avoided. Events have been cancelled. Going outside is basically a no-no. If you’re prone to stewing over current affairs and the state of the world, all that extra time is likely to catalyse even deeper thoughts about humanity, which is kind of what First Reformed is all about.

In it, Ethan Hawke, who is the dude from Training Day/the dad from Boyhood* (delete depending on taste), plays a conflicted Protestant minister struggling big time with his faith. Drinking whisky by night and giving guided church tours to ~three people in the day, he’s already tormented by the banality of life. Then he counsels a young man who bangs on and on about the climate crisis.

“Can God forgive us for what we've done to the world?,” says climate crisis dude to Ethan Hawke. “Is it right to raise a kid in an uncertain world?” This line of questioning flows through the film.

Lauren O'Neill: When we were trying to decide what to write about for the first instalment of this series, I happened to check Netflix for what had recently been uploaded. I picked First Reformed because I like A24 movies (“haha, you ever heard of these things called, ‘films’?” – me) and Ethan Hawke, and I’d heard it was about climate change, which felt like the right sort of vibe for our current predicament. The stuff about an uncertain world unsurprisingly hits home like a punch in the head.

Billy Moir, VICE reader : It’s like if Miyazaki wrote Travis Bickle as a Christian.

LO: It doesn’t take very long before the questions asked of Hawke’s character – the kind but bristly Reverend Toller – by Michael Mensana (Philip Ettinger), the climate change activist who wants his wife, Mary (played by Amanda Seyfried aka Karen from Mean Girls) to have an abortion rather than bring a child into the hell that is "planet Earth right now", start coming from the man himself. His small, historic church is attached to a more modern megachurch (it has a canteen!) linked with big, environmentally destructive business, and this link serves as a potent reminder of the institutions in our world that are particularly committed to maintaining capitalist order. It’s hard not to get especially furious when you’re seeing that laid bare here right now, as news of small businesses and mates and partners in precarious work struggling piles up. In a lot of ways, coronavirus is shoving a lot of problems that also relate to the climate crisis into our faces.

RB: Yeah. At first the climate change activist comes across like the vastly pessimist stoner guy in the kitchen at a house party, breathily talking about rising sea levels when all you want to do is crack on. But as the film returns to the issue again and again, with a bit of patience you can’t help thinking: huh, OK, good point (and also can I have some of that joint, pls). From there I started to think more widely about everything – less about the film, more about my life, yours, the world, the current situation right now. These are frightening yet quiet times and the reserved heaviness of this film reflects that, even if the ending is psychedelic.

Max Barkes, VICE reader: Guy lies down on girl, has a great trip, becomes climate change nut.

LO: Yeah, one of the things I really loved about this movie was how contained and restrained it looks and feels (for me, it made the cosmic sequence late on feel even more freeing, and the slightly gruesome imagery at the end of the film more surprising), which again kind of feels relatable because of the whole social distancing thing we’re all doing at the minute.

RB: It’s hard not to watch this, and not feel a bit fucked, whether for ourselves, or for future generations, basically.

Conner Green, VICE reader: I recommended it to my grandparents just to get a different generation’s view. After watching it my grandad said he finally understands why I don’t want to have kids – something he’s never understood. This film made him reassess his view on procreation. If that isn’t a glowing review, I don’t know what is.

@ryanbassil / @hiyalauren

Have a movie suggestion for the next Corona Film Club? Email coronafilmclub@vice.com.