The Sublime Despair of “First Reformed”

The Sublime Despair of “First Reformed” June 16, 2018


First Reformed is a magnum opus for writer/director Paul Schrader. Schrader tends to wear his influences on his sleeve, which has made some of his projects feel more like exercises in film technique than cinematic experiences. Those influences are overt in First Reformed, but the result is as equally complex and emotionally wrought as the films whose shadows are seen in the dark corners of the film’s interiors and the beleaguered faces of its characters. Like the work of Bergman and Tarkovsky, both of whom have been cited by Schrader as major influences, this is an elegy of a film that demands much from its audience.

Ethan Hawke delivers a reserved and precise performance which is perhaps the best of his career. Schrader brings the audience uncomfortably close to the inner life of Reverend Ernst Toller (Hawke), and the result is a truly distressing experience which reveals a new, and altogether more enthralling, side of Hawke’s abilities as an actor. Schrader’s choice to shoot in Academy ratio, which cuts off the panoramic effect of widescreen and reduces the image to an almost symmetrical square frame, lends an unsettling focus to the film’s cinematography. Though jarring at first, the intimacy and claustrophobia as the camera lingers on the hard, symmetrical angles of church architecture and the weathered visage of Hawke is enthralling.

Toller sets out on an “experiment,” in which he will write his unfiltered thoughts as he scans the wreckage of his life. A bottle of whiskey and the rapidly filling pages of his diary are his only companions, and the sensation of isolation and weight that Schrader conjures from the sparsely furnished room is overwhelming. Hawke’s voice over as these diary entries are written is flat and detached. He questions and doubts himself constantly as the square frame, glacially slow zooms, and unnerving symmetry of the cinematography reproduces Toller’s own meditative despair and mental self-flagellation.

Toller’s ministry at the titular First Reformed Church in upstate New York is marred by the materialism of megachurch culture. The quiet and emotionally masochistic faith of Toller is juxtaposed by the cynical complacency of Abundant Life. This megachurch owns and operates First Reformed, one of the oldest churches in America, and a popular tourist destination. The actual congregation of First Reformed consists of a handful of people, and Toller is humiliated by the church’s nickname: “the gift shop.” Toller, after delivering a half-hearted sermon, is approached by Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a woman in his congregation. She is desperate for Toller to counsel her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), because of his desire to terminate their pregnancy. The resulting conversation between Toller and Michael is chilling in its directness and startling in its reality. Michael is an environmental activist who has recently been released from prison after being arrested during a protest at an oil pipeline in Canada. What begins as a labored explanation of our current environmental peril, complete with real world statistics and projections, quickly develops into an intimate philosophical conversation about the nature of despair. Michael’s wild-eyed desperation at the impending doom of global warming is the reason he has asked Mary to have an abortion; he cannot reconcile his desire to bring a life into the world with the reality that that life will be subject to the horror of famine, disease, and war.

When Michael asks Toller if God will forgive humanity for destroying the Earth, Toller’s only response is a defeated, “I don’t know.” As the plot develops from this point, Schrader leads the audience through the downward spiral of Toller’s mental and physical health. His descent is as inevitable as the coming environmental crisis, and he seems to consume the pain and anxiety of the world around him. His arc is an emotional gauntlet, not only because of Hawke’s incredible performance, but because of the very real threat of global warming. What was a character’s inner turmoil is turned on the audience, and we see ourselves in the damaged and terrified eyes of Toller. That connection between the world of the film and our own reality hits with a brutal and visceral force that leaves an emotional crater in its wake.

Just as the oppressive reality of the film threatens to reach too harrowing a level, Schrader breaks away from the claustrophobic church interiors and veers towards the expressionistic and surreal. The ecstatic beauty of these sequences provides a tonal juxtaposition that is truly jarring, but has the effect of deepening the oppressive tension of Toller’s life. This sudden left turn also complicates the film’s themes, and assuages any fears that its politics will begin to become didactic or overwrought.

If films with political intent are typically a call to action, First Reformed is a swan song. It is the work of a filmmaker whose vision has been so clearly and starkly laid bare that it glistens like a fresh wound. At the risk of entering spoiler territory, I feel compelled to say that if depictions of suicide are a trigger, you should deliberate before seeing this film. The world, when seen in focus, can be a horrifically tragic place. First Reformed is a hard and quiet look at a very real and present threat in which we are all implicated. It shattered me in a way that few pieces of art have, and assured me that while the turmoil of our reality is reaching a fever pitch, our artists are producing work that will, if the world survives us, shine like diamonds in a landfill.


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