First Reformed (2017*) Written and directed by Paul Schrader Produced by Jack Binder, Greg Clark, Victoria Hill, Gary Hamilton, Deepak Sikka, Christine Vachon, David Hinojosa, Frank Murray Music by Brian Williams (Lustmord) Cinematography by Alexander Dynan Edited by Benjamin Rodriguez Jr. Distributed by A24 Bow Tie Cinemas Harbour 9, Annapolis, MD (1:53)
*released on the festival circuit in 2017; in wide release May 2018
Paul Schrader’s First Reformed opens with a long shot of a modest church, one we sense has been painted white for generation after generation, a building flanked by patches of snow amidst a darkened earthy landscape. The camera lingers a few moments as each shot draws us nearer to the church’s doors while Brian Williams’s unobtrusive score carries the weight of looming tension. If we didn’t know better, we might think we’re being prepared for a horror movie. Perhaps we are.
Seated at a desk that could’ve been built in Colonial America, we find Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), the pastor of a tiny Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York. “I have decided to keep a journal,” Toller both writes and narrates. He plans to keep the journal for one year, after which time he will destroy it. The middle-aged Toller no longer prays to God, but feels that journaling itself is a type of prayer. Perhaps this is due to his role as pastor to a church that’s more a historical tourist stop (complete with souvenirs) than a house of prayer: his congregation consists of only a handful of worshippers.
Or perhaps Toller no longer prays for other reasons. Although he reveals that he’s 46, Toller looks much older: lines crease his forehead, his collar appears stiff enough to cut into his skin if he had any inclination to bow his head in prayer, his hair resembles a carefully contained assemblage of stiff bristles, his health is failing, he drinks too much. Yet these are only the symptoms of overwhelming guilt, the source of which I will not reveal here. This physical deterioration is the sign of a more serious spiritual deterioration. Toller’s not sure God is even there anymore, much less listening. “When I see these words, I see not truth, but pride. If only I could pray.”
A young woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a member of Toller’s small flock, comes to him with a request. She wants Toller to counsel her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), who’s in despair. Mary is pregnant, but Michael doesn’t want her to have the baby, convinced that they shouldn’t bring a child into such a bleak world. Michael’s convinced we’ve abused the environment and caused climate change, unavoidably endangering the planet and our own future. Toller attempts to pass Mary’s request off to the more qualified counseling team at Abundant Life, a local megachurch that acts as a sister church to First Reformed. Mary refuses, claiming that Michael will talk only to Toller.
During his visit with Michael, Toller listens intently and engages in conversation with the young man. We’re not quite sure if this exchange is doing Michael any good, but Toller has latched onto something, possibly even a spiritual rebirth. “The struggle was exhilarating,” he narrates. We sense that Toller has perhaps found someone he can truly help, and possibly even help himself.
I won’t tell you what happens next (although I will discuss a SPOILER-FILLED examination of the film’s ending below), but I will say that an event (as well as its consequences) happens that places Toller in direct conflict with the pastor (Cedric Kyles, aka Cedric the Entertainer) of Abundant Life and Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), a corporate sponsor of the megachurch. First Reformed’s 250th anniversary is coming up, which includes a joint service/celebration with Abundant Life, which Toller is expected to participate in. Personal, spiritual and moral conflict all converge on Toller in a way that is extraordinarily rare in film in that both human and spiritual aspects are treated with respect, honesty, and dignity, all without cheap shots or denigration.
First Reformed is an extraordinary film filled with both complexity and grace, yet also immense tension, the kind you’ll find in the best thrillers. Schrader chooses to shoot the film in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, a much more intimate (and claustrophobic) setting as opposed to widescreen. With cinematographer Alexander Dynan, Schrader has also drained most of the color out of the film, a story that almost seems as if it wants to be a black-and-white film, combining elements of true darkness with many images of stark whiteness. And Ethan Hawke’s performance is so subdued, the few moments where he does raise his voice come across as thunderous. What Schrader has achieved here is tremendous: a film that speaks to those who are and those who are not people of faith in a way that dignifies both. This very well could be Paul Schrader’s masterpiece, and that’s saying a lot. If you have not seen this powerful film, I urge you to see it before reading any further.
The Ending - SPOILERS
(Before I get to the spoilers, I will say that when the film ended - and I saw it with an audience of no more than 20 people - one man several rows behind me shouted, “No! Man, you can’t end it like that! You just can’t!”)
Even in the short time since its release, many people have written about the ending of First Reformed. Although I’ve read many of these opinions, my original thoughts have changed very little since I saw the film. I do believe that Schrader wants his audience to bring their own thoughts and opinions to the film, that there is no right or wrong answer to the film’s ending. What follows are my own thoughts and why I think they make sense. You may agree or disagree.
The crucial moment to understanding the ending comes in an earlier scene when when Mary (now a widow after Michael’s suicide) comes to visit Toller. She tells Toller of the “touching” routine that she and Michael used to engage in. Toller asks Mary if she would like to engage in that touching experience with him, which seems a very bold move on his part. There are two possibilities for what happens next, but I must first preface those possibilities with this:
After his counseling session with Michael, Toller mentions things that he should’ve said to Michael. (He also mentions in this session things he should’ve done as a husband and a father.)
In this previously-mentioned meeting with Mary, asking her if she’d like to participate in the touching exercise could be something that Toller should have - or wishes he had - asked her, making the rest of what follows a daydream or fantasy. I actually don’t think that’s the case here. I prefer to think that the two actually do engage in the exercise as it is shown up to a point. During the touching scene, we almost expect that Mary and Toller are going to kiss. Instead, Mary’s hair falls down, obscuring what might be a kiss, but probably isn’t. It’s at this point when Mary’s hair (or the “curtain,” if you will) falls that the strange levitation/transcendental scene occurs. In my mind, this is a daydream/fantasy of Toller, representing the personal relationship that he wishes could happen, having had previous relationships taken from him (his son) and himself spurning others (the Abundant Life music director Esther, played by Victoria Hill). This scene also mixes a blissful, beautiful journey of what Toller wants to happen with the more harsh reality representing Michael’s misgivings about the Earth’s future.
The final scene recalls elements from the levitation/transcendental scene, but with greater weight and certainly greater consequences. After seeing Mary come into the church (against his spoken wishes to her), we witness Toller as he removes the suicide vest and wraps himself with barbed wire. We also see him discard the liquor in his glass and replace it with a generous amount of drain cleaner. During this entire sequence, Schrader gives us several shots of the 250th anniversary service, including one of Esther performing “Are You Washed in the Blood.” (I may be incorrect in the choice of hymn. At the end, we’re clearly hearing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”) When we return to Toller, Mary has come into the rectory looking for him. He throws the glass of drain cleaner to the floor and moves to embrace and kiss Mary. Somewhere between these two cuts, I believe Toller has actually drunk the drain cleaner and that everything that follows is a daydream/fantasy, something that he wishes he had done.
I believe this because we know that Toller has not removed the barbed wire from his body. In an earlier shot, his blood is clearly seeping through his cassock. In the final shot, Toller and Mary are embracing so tightly that she must’ve felt the barbed wire (especially in her pregnant state), yet there’s no indication that she’s in any pain. Furthermore, the abrupt ending seems to indicate that Toller’s life (not Mary’s) has just ended. Again, this is my interpretation. You may agree or disagree.
No matter how you look at it, the question stands: was Toller seeking salvation in a relationship with Mary? If my interpretation is correct, this poses an even more important question: has Toller found salvation or damnation?
Oddly enough, just a few hours before I watched First Reformed, our church held an ordination service for a new associate pastor. In his charge to our new associate pastor, our senior pastor charged him to uphold his primary responsibility before God: to feed God’s sheep, the congregation that’s been placed in his charge. He warned the new associate that there will be times when congregants will seek him for help and guidance. It may happen at the most inopportune times, perhaps in the middle of the night or at times of high stress. Yet the primary job of pastors is to feed the sheep of their congregations.
Does Toller ultimately do this? I think that’s one of the prime questions we can ask ourselves after watching First Reformed. I also think that Schrader - who has asked many spiritual questions in his 40+ years as a writer/director - is asking perhaps his most pointed questions with this film. Schrader, who was raised by strict Calvinist parents and not allowed to watch any movie before the age of 18, is still dealing with matters of faith. He does so at a time when many who were raised attending churches and synagogues are abandoning the faith. If nothing else, First Reformed provides many opportunities for discussion about film, faith, and life itself.
Photos: Rolling Stone, One Room With a View, Hollywood Reporter, Out