Gunfighter of the Gospel

Ethan Hawke in First Reformed and The Good Lord Bird
illustration by Tony Stella

Upon wrapping up my rewatch of Showtime’s The Good Lord Bird, I noticed an unprecedented flurry of avian life in the woods outside my window. A hawk overhead; some six blue jays; a cardinal; and, most eye-catchingly, the largest woodpecker I’ve ever seen. With its black-and-white body and flaming red crest, the bird—a pileated woodpecker, according to some slapdash reconnaissance—was to me, a birding neophyte, nearly identical to the show’s titular Good Lord bird, otherwise known as the ivory-billed woodpecker. Now nearly extinct, it’s possible—if not entirely probable—that the bird, endemic to the American South, should be spotted in the Bleeding Kansas of The Good Lord Bird. And it is, exactly twice: first as an introduction, second when it’s shot dead. The coincidence of my woodpecker sighting bordered on uncanny. To someone less cynical it may have even seemed divine, a quality in keeping with the Good Lord bird, whose mystical rarity causes those around it to assign the bird some assumed holy import. Appropriately, The Good Lord Bird’s titular creature meets a violent end; the show is deeply interested in what happens when violence intersects with godliness. At its crossroads is John Brown. 

Co-created by Ethan Hawke and Mark Richard, The Good Lord Bird is the first series to center around the famously polarizing John Brown, the radical abolitionist and intensely religious itinerant who led the 1859 raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, in then-Virginia. Like the National Book Award-winning James McBride novel from 2013 on which it is based, the series is told through the eyes of Henry “Onion” Shackleford (Joshua Caleb Johnson), an enslaved teen. After inadvertently causing the death of Henry’s father, Brown essentially kidnaps the child under the guise of stewardship. When his name is misheard by the abolitionist as “Henrietta,” Henry, too scared to correct the shotgun-toting Brown, dons a dress and joins Brown’s motley crew of “gunfighters of the gospel.”

Hawke’s portrayal of the wild-eyed Brown shows a man consumed by religiosity and, in his mind, the inextricably linked zeal for both justice and godliness. It stands to reason, then, that The Good Lord Bird is lousy with scripture. While not especially God-fearing myself (fearing enough, I suppose, to capitalize “God”—do you think He’ll notice?), it’s difficult to binge-watch the pious ramblings of a zealot without them rubbing off a bit. I still contend that my woodpecker sighting was more coincidence than act of God—but, like the Brown family, even I was forced to countenance the bird’s strange, numinous glow. “I can catch or trap just about any kind of bird there is,” says Frederick Brown, the first but certainly not the last member of the Brown clan to die for the cause over the course of the series. “But that one’s an angel.” 

Frederick is depicted as a happy-go-lucky simpleton compared to his more hardened family members, but the bird seems to have cast a spell over the entire Brown clan. The senior Brown is loath to give Onion his beloved Good Lord bird feather, only yielding when a member of his “army” quotes proverbs: “Those who cling to worthless objects turn away from God.” Unable to go against the Bible, he submits, childlike: “It doesn’t bother me, giving you my special thing.” If the Good Lord bird’s feathers provide some holy comfort or, as Frederick asserts, eternal understanding, its death serves as an ominous portent. Blocky yellow text hangs above the woodpecker’s body— “A Bad Omen”—moments before Frederick, too, is shot down.

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A dead bird from another Ethan Hawke joint hangs in my memory. Halfway through First Reformed, Hawke’s Reverend Ernst Toller parses through the papers of an environmental activist, Michael (Philip Ettinger), who had recently ended his life. The camera lingers over a photo of a dead seabird, positioned much like the murdered woodpecker: head lurched unnaturally sideways, skeletal, wings askew. While the Good Lord bird met a decidedly antebellum end—loaded with lead grape and gunpowder—the spent gull is filled with detritus from our century, guts strewn with plastic, feathers oil-slicked. This image, along with Michael’s clippings on droughts and oil spills, does not alone catalyze Reverend Toller’s tailspin towards self-destruction, but it does light a fire in him, one fueled by the dual forces of justice and desperation.    

Ethan Hawke has said that his great-grandmother wanted him to be a priest. Perhaps she sensed in him something teetering between sober meditation and ecstatic persuasion. Hawke may not have officially joined the clergy, but he would investigate those impulses and those who cling to them to inform his best work. In The Good Lord Bird and First Reformed, the actor portrays two men of God—coincidentally, both Calvinists—preoccupied by the sinful injustices of their respective times: slavery and the climate crisis. Brown and Toller are Hawke’s two best performances in as many years. The way Hawke plays these two characters could not be more different; Toller is tight-lipped and stoic, Brown is boisterous and fanatical. Each man’s reaction to the dead bird he encounters highlights his specific worldview. Brown, quick to contort bad news to fit his needs, wrings out divine positivity at the sight of his slain son next to the dead Good Lord bird: “Frederick left us a wonderful omen.” Toller observes the photo of the bird, dead at the hands of pollution—as well as pages of other oppressive data—in silence, allowing the information to seep in and add to his mounting inner torment. When Michael seeks guidance from Toller at his wife Mary’s (Amanda Seyfried) behest, he asks a question that inadvertently exposes the similarities between Hawke’s performances and the contexts that they occupy: “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?”

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First Reformed does not shy away from making its influences known. Paul Schrader has specifically cited Robert Bresson’s 1951 film Diary of a Country Priest and Ingmar Bergman’s 1963 Winter Light as providing narrative inspiration. Like Bresson’s priest, Reverend Toller is an ill alcoholic keeping a journal. And, as in Bergman’s film, he deals with a crisis of faith after providing counsel to the troubled husband of a congregant. Schrader has also pointed to a number of other filmmakers—namely Yasujirō Ozu and Carl Theodor Dreyer—in developing what he refers to as a Transcendental Style of filmmaking, which he expounds upon in his 1972 book Transcendental Style in Film. The style, which Schrader achieves to great effect in First Reformed, aims to express a spiritual state through austere camera movements, restrained editing, and banal stylization. It is only when these choices are suspended—through soaring camera work, moments of surreality, and suddenly emotive performances—that the film reaches spiritual transcendence.

Hawke’s performance is instrumental in achieving this cinema of austerity. For most of the film, Toller’s stony composure reflects the placid texture of his day-to-day movements. Reverend to a dwindling congregation, Toller resembles something closer to a glorified handyman, regularly seen unclogging toilets and giving tours at the 250-year-old First Reformed Church while the Abundant Life megachurch provides patronage. Even in the face of a despairing and anxious Michael, who offers the Reverend a torrent of devastating data (“severe, widespread, and irreversible impact”) Toller is cool and measured, reinforcing Schrader’s “factual, emotionless environment.” Toller is a man for whom “still waters run deep” is a means of self-preservation. “The man who says nothing always seems more intelligent,” he thinks during a meeting in which he challenges Ed Balq (Michael Gaston), a super-polluting industrialist and financier of Abundant Life (and, therefore, First Reformed). “Why couldn’t I just keep silent?” When Toller does emote, first in blips and eventually in a flood, it feels like a glitch in the system, light peeking through the otherwise gloomy environs that Schrader and Hawke have so meticulously crafted.

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If Hawke’s rendering of Toller helps to capture First Reformed’s cinema of austerity, then his kinetic, darkly funny, and often violent John Brown is a reflection of the world of The Good Lord Bird. When we first meet Brown in episode one, he is a beady-eyed holy madman next to the muted and well-kempt Toller. He gruffly bellows—one of his preferred modes of speech for the entirety of the series—“don’t swear God’s name again” at a slave owner, spittle spraying from his beard, eyes rolling into the back of his head. Just as the series itself balances a diversity of tone, oscillating between humor and tragedy, so does Hawke’s depiction of Brown.

For all the gore and dark subject matter of The Good Lord Bird, the show is, like its source text, full of comedic relief that counters the frequent grief and inhumanity. After inciting a shootout with the aforementioned slave owner, Brown absconds with the newly orphaned Onion, whose father was caught in the crossfire. Back at camp, when Onion collapses into grief, Brown sits there blinking, then smacks a mosquito on his neck. It’s a moment of silliness inserted amid despair, and The Good Lord Bird is full of instances like these that buoy what could have been a relentlessly dour show. The humor also undermines buffoonish characters—of which there’s no shortage, from drunken slavers to Brown himself, whose absolute belief in his mission can lapse into bumbling delusion. “Thousands will heed the call to our trumpet!” proclaims a quixotic Brown at Harper’s Ferry. “Anybody bring the trumpet?”

At the core of Brown’s identity on The Good Lord Bird is faith, and we see it color everything he says and does. Much of the comic relief aims to demonstrate the absurd heights of his piousness, such as when Brown demands his sons quote scripture in the middle of a shootout, or when he proselytizes a rabbit (“I see Christ in you. Do you have a fire in your heart for justice?”). Brown’s madness and moral character are also filtered through religion. A number of his fiery outbursts are either paeans to Jesus or rebukes for not following His teachings. He announces to slavery sympathizers in the Kansas territory, “I have come to deliver His holy redeemer’s justice, free His people, and exact His revenge for the murder, rape, and the kidnapping of the Negro by slavers. ALL those involved. There are no exceptions.” 

Here and elsewhere, Hawke’s gravelly delivery alternates between grave, unhurried moralizing and the frenzied fire-and-brimstone wailings of a preacher. Even Onion is hip to the old man’s infamous fanaticism, noticing when religious zeal rubs up against marked lunacy. “The old man was a plain terror in the praying department,” Onion notes. “They were always long-winded and could easily last an hour.” Some of his assessments of Brown are more, shall we say, brusque: “The old man was nuttier than a squirrel turd.”

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While Hawke’s Reverend Toller is the bona fide clergyman, it is Brown who has all the calling cards of a self-important religious leader. Such characteristics—the inflated ego, the premature sense of martyrdom, the belief that he is an agent of God’s will—are rendered redeemable by Brown’s raison d’être being the abolitionist cause rather than more narcissistic ends. What did and remains to make John Brown such a polarizing figure, however, is his unshakeable faith as a justification for untold violence. In one episode of The Good Lord Bird, Brown and his army decapitate a man who, while not a slaveholder himself, commits the cardinal sin of not speaking against the institution. On the one hand it’s a proportionately bloody antecedent to the nation’s bloodiest war. But seen through the eyes of wide-eyed Onion, the scene shows the shockingly gruesome slaughter of a down-on-his-luck farmer, leaving the viewer to grapple with the grey area between culpability and, quite literally, losing one’s head.

In his book The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War, Andrew Delbanco details a night in May of 1856. The real-life Brown and his small party of avengers dragged five men out of their homes in front of their wives and children and stabbed four of them to death. The fifth was shot. Their connections to slavery were tenuous at best; one was a bailiff at a local district court that had ruled on a territorial slavery law case. Another was the son of a juror. “It wouldn’t be murder,” Hawke’s Brown reasons. “It would be justice.” Which sin is worse, The Good Lord Bird asks—slavery or the amount of blood spilled to end it? For John Brown, the answer is simple, if only in the confines of his own head: “Slavery is a crime and a society that supports it is insane! I am the sanest man you have ever seen!” In depicting Brown through the lens of a green, skeptical narrator, The Good Lord Bird is able to show all the sides of Brown’s muddy morality. 

Brown’s predilection towards violence is well-established at the outset of The Good Lord Bird. Upon entering a Kansas territory barbershop, he is already a mythic, threatening figure to the slaveholding populace. For Brown, this is a point of pride. The nickname to which he regularly refers to himself with a barrel-chested yell—“Osawatomie” John Brown—memorializes the 1856 Battle of Osawatomie, in which he confirmed his status as a guerrilla warrior to be reckoned with. Toller’s turn towards violence is slower. Like the Reverend himself, his shift in thinking is more churning, more measured. When Michael seeks counsel from Toller, he is so devastated by the implications of climate change that he wants his wife to terminate her pregnancy.

Toller initially combats Michael’s torment with a plea for hope, but it’s the lingering question—“will God forgive us?”—that sparks the Reverend’s own radicalization and eventual undoing. It takes nearly the entirety of First Reformed for Toller to work up the mettle to, in a jarring display, strap on a suicide vest. John Brown, meanwhile, comes out guns blazing. Brown’s ruthlessness is an extension of his spirituality. In his mind, Brown’s gruesome exploits aren’t sinful in and of themselves. They’re merely “putting God’s philosophy into action.” Conversely, Toller’s consideration of violence is the result of a crisis of faith. Even then, he can only direct the impulse inward. 

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What compelled Hawke to seek out these two troubled Calvinists, and how did they draw out the best in him? It is not just faith that unites them—whether it’s a brash, forward-facing spirituality or an aesthetics of spirituality—but a likeness of mission. Brown and Toller may not see the world the same way (to speak nothing of how they conduct themselves), but they are linked by the worlds to which they are reacting. The Good Lord Bird and First Reformed universes are mired in sin—the degradation of a people and the earth. Neither evil exists in a vacuum. Rather, they are bolstered and exacerbated by the same inert system—the policies of which, even 160 years apart, are either feckless or callous or both.

In fighting the evils of slavery, Brown recognizes that the indifferent Northerner, the lawmaker lining his pockets, and the slave owner himself are one and the same enemy. The decades leading up to the Civil War were an abject exercise in prolonging the inevitable, defined by policies that delayed federal intervention and put the onus on individuals. “The Kansas-Nebraska Act,” Delbanco writes, “was an attempt to defuse the slavery problem by submitting it to what [Senator] Stephen Douglas called ‘the great principle of self-government,’ by which he meant that the fate of slavery should be left to local voters.” Even Lincoln recognized the fallacy of political indifference, understanding that slavery, like a virus, would rage unabated if the powerful failed to take action. To this delayed reckoning, the real and fictional Brown applied a more immediate approach.  

First Reformed and The Good Lord Bird can best be linked by a common, disheartening truth: the more things change, the more they stay the same. As the sinister enablers of the climate crisis get under Toller’s skin, he is less and less able to stand idly by, especially when confronting the hypocrisy that the hyper-polluting Balq Industries finances his church. As a violent plot swirls in his head—not just against Balq, but also against the complicit Mayor and Governor—a spiraling Toller recites Ephesians 6:10: “Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the Devil’s schemes, for our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world.” It’s not just that Balq and dozens of companies like it committed these atrocities against the environment; it’s that they knew the scale of their wrongdoing and proceeded anyway. Quoting vengeful scripture, Toller comes close to resembling the Biblical madness of Brown.

“If it were easy to tell John Brown’s story,” Hawke said in an interview, “it would have been done before.” The Good Lord Bird contends not only with Brown’s checkered legacy, but also with the ongoing gospel of equality. What Hawke’s two performances reveal about each other is that sinfulness has gone on unabated due to the structures in place that tolerate and, implicitly or overtly, encourage it. Both characters showcase our capacity to let that sin set us on fire or erode us away. 

“Can God forgive us?” 

Toller responds, “Who can know the mind of God?” Behind that murky spiritual aphorism the gears of radicalization start to turn in his head, tapping into a Brownsian rage between soldier of the cross and terrorist. If this country is obsessed with the sinister refrain of individual responsibility—whether it’s popular sovereignty or minding one’s carbon footprint or protecting oneself in a pandemic—why shouldn’t these men respond with proportionately individualistic vengeance? As the government sleepwalks through yet another crisis, I’m reminded of the journalist Amy Westervelt’s remarks on the United States’ perennially botched approach to systemic problems: “You’re supposed to bear the brunt of the problem, take the blame for causing it, and also solve it all on your own.” To her final point, Toller and Brown go about solving society’s ills to self-destructive ends. Martyrdom, after all, is at the nexus of self-sacrifice and someone’s else’s sins. Contrary to all the spittle and bloodlust and barbed wire that these men spew forth, theirs is a violence applied with a zen-like clarity of purpose. “The Good Lord bird doesn’t fly in a flock. You know why?” Brown asks Onion in the hours before his execution. “The voice of our spirit is gentle. Sometimes you have to fly alone to hear it.”