Picture this: A man of ever-struggling faith, a lifelong student of various prayer practices, shaped (for better and for worse) by a lifetime in Christian education, sits down at a laptop to see if the news that he has heard about the world is true. And the faith he has believed would sustain him, the faith that describes trials and troubles as occasions to consider “all joy,” is quickly shaken.

Surrounded by an increasingly oppressive darkness, he stares into the screen — not unlike poor Pippin the Hobbit entranced by the soul-sucking visions of that crystal ball called a palantir. His fears catch fire and spread. The promises of his God seem to fade when he stares into the toxic glow of human evil: images of devastation, headlines about disaster and pending disaster, statistics that promise unimaginable human suffering and global destruction.

What vile and depraved people are we. What a hopeless vision.

He stares into the laptop screen, hour upon hour sucked into the black hole of his paralysis and increasing despair.

But enough about me scrolling through Facebook every night.

We’re here to consider a movie. Let’s talk about First Reformed.


I approached First Reformed, the acclaimed new film from writer-director Paul Schrader, with some trepidation.

Schrader the Screenwriter — there’s an artist I admire. He’s written some unforgettable films, including three directed by Martin Scorsese that I’ve found richly rewarding over decades: Taxi Driver, for example. Raging Bull. And, yes, The Last Temptation of Christ. (It’s complicated. Don’t overreact.)

Schrader the Director? Although he has more than 20 directing credits, the man calling the shots (literal, visual, theological) in First Reformed hasn’t directed anything that has made a lasting impression on my imagination or crafted images that linger with me (or, in my experience, with most other moviegoers and critics). Hearing this film referred to as his “masterpiece” by many, even by most of my favorite critics, I was skeptical. But when I learned it was about an American Christian wrestling with the hypocrisies of “the political church,” I was intrigued. Few subjects are closer to my heart or more relevant to my experience.

Full disclosure: I saw the film with a friend who has some history with Schrader. They were undergraduates together at Calvin College, and they both continue to wrestle with questions about faith. I wanted his company for the post-viewing conversation. Without the “work” of reflection and discussion, moviegoing is like tasting, but not really eating, a meal. I knew he’d help me appreciate what I’d been served.

Sure enough, First Reformed gave us a lot to chew on and a lot to stomach… so to speak. From the film’s exaltation of the writings of Thomas Merton (a personal hero for me) to the timely debates between church leaders to the film’s enigmatic conclusion, we found our expectations surpassed in some ways, confounded in others.

[Note: My thanks to Laure Hittle and Claire Tanner, whose ongoing support of Looking Closer as “Looking Closer Specialists” made this moviegoing and review-writing possible. They pour fuel into the tank that makes this engine run. Thanks, Laure and Claire!]

I’ve approached writing about the film with some reluctance (because I hate to sound a dissonant note in the concert of praise that my colleagues are singing); some misgivings (I think theologically ambitious films like this one should be seen and discussed, so I don’t want to discourage anyone); and some serious dread (I find it difficult to express why I’m not one of those guaranteeing this a place on my year-end top ten list).

Still, surprised by how many readers have asked me specifically about this one, I need to take a swing at this complicated pitch. It feels like a movie that requires a series of essays: essays about artistry, about theology, about other movies, and about my personal and complicated history with Christianity. So bear with me as I try to sum things up in a single post here, during this short window of time.


If you’ve read this far, you probably already know the film’s premise:

Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) — the zealous pastor of the small, white-steepled, First Reformed church of Snowbridge, New York — is negotiating with Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer) of the heavily branded Abundant Life megachurch across the street, in preparation for the little sanctuary’s 250th anniversary celebration. Or, as they’re calling it, “a reconsecration service.”

Negotiations aren’t going well.

Abundant Life owns the little church, preserving it as a sort of tourist attraction. Abundant Life may be “successful” when it comes to attendance numbers, extra programs, and tithing totals, but it seems to value the way in which the smaller, older church gives it the appearance of a connection to an actual tradition, actual integrity. As Toller talks with Jeffers (a play on the name Jeffress?), we can sense the tension between his earnestness (Ernst-ness?) and Jeffers’ easy compromises and business-minded rationalizations. While Toller values the examples set by contemplatives and mystics like Thomas Merton who read the Scriptures deeply and insightfully, Jeffers’ eyes are on the bottom line.

For Toller, First Reformed Church is more than a tradition to uphold; it’s a lifeline to what remains of America’s grasp of the Gospel. For Jeffers, First Reformed is anachronistic, a ‘museum,’ or a ‘Souvenir Shop.’  In fervently seeking to defend and revive his church, Toller is, as Steven D. Greydanus writes in his review for The National Catholic Register, “propping up a monument.”

There are other troubles lurking in the corridors of the conference-center-like church across the street, including Esther (Victoria Hill), the Abundant Life choir director eager to provide Toller with a listening ear and, well, a lot more than just that. She wears her suits — you could call her style “Megachurch Corporate” — like a straitjacket only Toller can unbind. And while her not-so-subtle invitations expose her own near-desperation for intimacy with Toller’s aching heart (aligned with her church’s lack of real Gospel), they also reveal Toller’s deep shame over past failures to uphold the teachings of his own church on matters of love, lust, and relationship. He’s weak and wounded, after all, having lost a son in the oil-driven Iraq war, and subsequently lost his marriage. He’s not confident that he’s capable of loving again, or of surviving the costs that love demands.

What’s more, Toller struggles in communicating with today’s consumer-culture Christians. His summons to the self-denial of Christ clash with the politics and shallowness of the Abundant Church young people, where a false gospel of positive-thinking makes believers intolerant of questions that aren’t easily answered, and thus incapable of wrestling with the problem of evil.

When Toller realizes that his church’s “reconsecration” is going to give places of prominence to the local governor and, worst of all, an ignorant and bullying oil man, and that he’s disallowed from giving “political” messages about serving the poor, caring for creation, and repenting of corruption, he doubts whether he should be involved at all.

But the central conflict of the film is more visceral and intimate.

Toller is counseling a troubled married couple — Michael and Mary (yes, you’re right, the names are heavily symbolic) — who have come to him in desperation. Michael, an activist recently released from jail for his participation in protests against environmental pollution, has a bleak vision of the future: He thinks that humankind has poisoned the world beyond repair, and that the end will come quickly and severely. But Mary is pregnant, and Michael cannot reconcile their responsibilities as parents-in-waiting with their vision of the future.

Do you see where this is going? Mary wants to have the baby, to live in hope, to choose life. Michael wants a mercy killing for the baby, to spare it the inevitable nightmare of Planet Earth’s disintegration at the hands of heartless corporations.

Can the baby be saved? Can the marriage?

Those are heavy questions. But there are even more unsettling questions. (And why are they more unsettling than the prospect of an abortion or the world’s end?) What are Toller’s motives in opening his door so readily to Mary in her desperate state? Why is she so eager to fling herself into these deep, intimate conversations with another man? Is this headed where it seems to be headed?

It doesn’t take long to see that nobody here has the answers. Nobody knows what to do. And nobody has the moral high ground: every stream is polluted, every heart is fraught with sin, polluted with despair, and hastening a pending apocalypse.

As Reverend Toller investigates Michael’s claims about pending environmental destruction, he spends long hours staring at horrific news on his laptop. His “awakening” is also a “darkening.” Alexander Dynan’s cinematography emphasizes this: Watch, and you’ll see Toller increasingly drawn to darkness, ignoring or failing to notice the light that so relentlessly pursues him (it’s almost always just around the corner, or shouting through a window) — the light that could, well, enlighten him.

If we’ve learned anything from scripts penned by Paul Schrader, things will get worse before they get better. In fact, they probably won’t get better at all. The best we can hope for is some kind of transcendent hope, like the kind that faintly glimmers in the closing moments of No Country for Old Men, as the despairing sheriff stares into the darkness and dreams of a distant light.


In noting the art-film classics that stand like authoritative ancestors for this film, I’m not straying from what many other critics have already observed: Schrader has clearly and deliberately shaped his film to admit and even celebrate the influence of master filmmakers like Robert Bresson (especially Diary of a Country Priest), Ingmar Bergman (especially Winter Light), and Andrei Tarkovsky (especially The Sacrifice and Mirror).

He’s also obviously reminding us of points along his own filmmaking journey, frequently glancing back at moments in Hardcore (with its burden of Dutch Reformed theological inquiries); Taxi Driver (with its story of a man whose loneliness, compulsions, ignorance, and desire for justice lead to violent extremes); and Last Temptation (with its story of a tormented Son of God trying to figure out how to save the world and resist his own human impulses toward sin).

Greydanus concludes that First Reformed is a film “full of longing for redemption: for healing of wounds, forgiveness of sins, and, in some unguessable way, vindication of faith.” And I cannot disagree.

But I must also admit that the influential masterworks that Schrader reveres, and which he references in ways both obvious and subtle, turn what might have been a strength — his expertise in transcendental cinema — into its most frustrating weakness.

I don’t need to go into what so many others have observed: how a close-up of Toller’s whiskey-Pepto cocktail recalls Travis Bickle’s glass of roiling Alka-Seltzer fizz; how the sight of Toller’s burdened and self-polluting priest recalls the titular minister in Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest; or how he films spaces in ways that resemble Ozu’s frames within frames.

Perhaps other moviegoers won’t find themselves distracted by the frequent allusions to other films. But they disrupted my suspension of disbelief on more than one occasion — by their frequency; by their obviousness (the echoes of Schrader’s own Taxi Driver are clever at first but annoying later, and levitation isn’t the only iconic Tarkovsky surprise that he somewhat clumsily appropriates here); and by the fact that, without them, the movie would never quite — forgive the expression — get off the ground.

Keeping all of these movies I’ve already mentioned in mind, I want to point to another film, the one I find myself thinking about most in comparison to First Reformed. It’s one I don’t see deliberately cross-referenced in the movie… or mentioned at all in reviews I’ve read so far: The Mosquito Coast.

Directed by Peter Weir, and adapted by Schrader from a novel by Paul Theroux, The Mosquito Coast follows Allie Fox (Harrison Ford in a gutsy, whole-hearted performance): a zealous, prophetic, countercultural man raging about the corrupting evils of American consumerism, and raging against a corrupt Christianity, only to find his own hubris leading him to catastrophic mistakes that accelerate the destruction of the world. In Fox’s evangelistic fervor, we see another precursor to Toller: an activist whose activism quickly makes him yet another destroyer of worlds.

And yet, when I think of how The Mosquito Coast has stayed with me as not only one of my favorite Peter Weir films but also one of my favorite Harrison Ford performances, I think of how enthralled I was; how persuaded I was by the narrative, the contexts, the dark and troubling images; and how I came away taking it all so personally. It was as if I’d been given a warning by a Ghost of Passion Future: “Beware of your zeal for righteousness, because it will fill you with the same condemning spirit you loathe in others.” It was a strange and singular experience — singular like Scorsese’s virtuosic direction of Taxi Driver, or Tarkovsky’s abstract and terrifying exploration of memory, conscience, and the subconscious, in Zerkalo (Mirror).  Those are films in which I am caught up, believing in what I’m seeing, under a spell, and changed.

By contrast, First Reformed constantly points outside of itself, asking us to consider it in relation to other great works. It seems so eager to show us connections with past movies that I almost anticipate we’ll find Toller wearing a tattoo of the Criterion Collection logo on his arm. It seems to announce its own canonical importance by association. I half-expect to see copies of Schrader’s own book, Transcendental Style in Film, sitting on Toller’s bookshelf next to The Cloud of Unknowing or Merton’s The Sign of Jonas. (Don’t get me wrong: It’s a great book, and I rely on it when I teach film courses.) And as the film’s insistence on its own profundity goes on, I find myself longing to escape into one of its more spontaneous and surprising cinematic relatives, like John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary.

What’s more, the supporting characters around Toller strike me more as positions designed to provoke him than as fully realized characters enriching the whole.

As Mary, Amanda Seyfried (Mama Mia: Here We Go Again) never becomes, for me, anything more than a walking symbol, a prompt for Toller to take up her cause. I’d argue that she’s miscast; we needed someone who could do more with what little she’s given in the screenplay. (I am grateful, I guess, that Mary’s pro-life pregnancy will shield this movie from sparking what several of Schrader’s previous films have provoked; the condemnation of FOX Evangelicals.)

By contrast, Philip Ettinger (as Michael) gives what lingers for me as the film’s most haunting performance. Michael speaks from a place of persuasive conviction and passion while also sounding like a wounded child, a boy whose life has been shaped by bullying. He’s amazing. (And he only appears in two scenes!)

Even Toller himself works more as a complicated construct of metaphors and footnotes than as a living, breathing, convincing character. If you see his austere apartment, his bottles of liquor, his coils of barbed wire, and the suicide vest he’s confiscated, you can map his whole story. He doesn’t come fully to life for me because he seems so narrowly and forcefully tracked, as if that vertical furrow in his brow were carved there by Makeup and he lost himself inside of it. I never quite believe that he would make any of several extreme decisions he makes near the end.

This makes First Reformed a drama that feels more like ideas, concerns, and questions given human representatives rather than the absorbing, persuasive human drama that I think it wants to be—and could have become in the hands of a different director, one unconcerned with annotating his own film.

So many of my favorite films are about human beings bending under a burden of conscience and grief, then catching a glimpse of grace: Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue, for example, or Malick’s The Tree of Life. Both of those come from artists deeply rooted in the study of cinema. Both draw upon, without drawing attention to, their influences. First Reformed can’t quite bear up under the weight of the masterpieces it asks to be counted alongside. What seemed organic, visionary, and integral in those films feels awkward when reappearing here, as if those allusions are balloons Schrader ties to his work in order to lift it up.


Having said that, I’m sure I’ll continue to think about and discuss First Reformed for years to come. It represents a rare and intriguing example of theological inquiry in American cinema, and one driven by an aching conscience, a self-effacing honesty, and, yes, a longing for God’s grace in a world that we — incapable as we are of saving ourselves from our sins — cannot redeem ourselves. Perhaps its strengths will, in time, outshine its weaknesses for me.

I’m already experiencing one of the movie’s special effects.

When I find myself staring at my laptop screen or my phone, caught in flood of dismaying headlines, my soul suffocating at the constantly breaking news of how humanity is breaking the world, I see a face reflected in the screen: Reverend Toller, disappearing into the internet abyss of his own sickness, losing sight of God’s promises under the spell of the devil’s flamboyance, and — worse — failing to give shape to the love that he claims to have for this world. In those moments, I hear actual wisdom in the voice of the otherwise-misguided Pastor Jeffers: “Even Jesus wasn’t always in the Garden.”

This reminds me of what I recall as the most striking and unexpected image in the movie: a seemingly inconsequential moment when Toller sits with Mary in her home. Beside him stands what may be the most unsettling living-room lamp I’ve ever seen: a lightless eye that stares slightly off-center, distracted, preoccupied. If Schrader doesn’t intend this as a reminder of Matthew 6:22–23, then I can’t make any sense of it. Those scriptures seem foundational to the movie’s portrait of a believer whose faith is shaken by what he sees—or, rather, by how he sees:

The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body.

Insofar as I need to be reminded of how corrosive my growing addiction to news, images, and revelations of the world’s decline has become, I am grateful for this image, this reminder, this movie.

Perhaps it is most appropriate that I conclude this review by doing what Schrader loves to do. I’ll point to Andrei Tarkovsky. I’ll let the Russian master’s imagination do the heavy lifting. For it was Tarkovsky who said,

My function is to make whoever sees my films aware of his need to love and to give his love, and aware that beauty is summoning him.

Could there be a better description of Schrader’s own intent as he crafted the final moments of this movie?

Insofar as Tarkovsky is describing what cinema, at its very best, can do… First Reformed is a work that deserves all of our attention. And, in gratitude for that, I will, in spite of its weaknesses, see it, suffer it, and “consider it all joy” again.


 

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