Seeing “First Reformed”

There aren’t as many TV shows or movies that interestingly inhabit a religious perspective as their should be. Or that’s what I’ve found myself thinking recently, rightly or not.1 There are at least two reasons this is puzzling. First, most of the people who have ever lived on this planet have done so from a religious viewpoint. Overwhelmingly, this remains true even today. So, why is the representation of religion on screen so out of proportion with this reality? Second, as writers and musicians who have depicted it well demonstrate, a robust presentation of religious experience is an immense artistic opportunity. All too often, however, religion on screen is reduced to a cardboard cutout. Religious people are so much more complex and their lives so much more interesting than the hackneyed clichés of extremists and fundamentalists, two ever-present ghosts haunting the modern liberal imagination (not to mention John Lenon’s “Imagine”). Just think of how difficult it should be, but often isn’t, to represent the ancient world of Greece and Rome without religion.2 Yet it was central to their world. Any representation that consistently excludes it hazards distortion, if not outright deception. Why is this the case? What are the conditions that give rise to this repeatedly blinkered framing?

To complain about the lack of good movies which inhabit a religious world is not to say that none such exist. Thankfully, they most certainly do. By using the phrase “inhabit a religious world” I include movies that focus explicitly on religion, such as Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016), as well as those that take a religious perspective as the setting for their story, which may or may not have religion at its centre, such as Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2018). If we need good movies that keep diverse perspectives firmly in view, including minority experiences (non-elite, non-white, non-binary, and so on), as we undoubtedly do, so that the normative weight of the majority does not become oppressive by tilting the scales of justice and recognition unfairly, we also need good movies that connect with the experience of significant portions of the population at large. In brief, we need good movies about religion itself, and we need movies for which religion is the constitutive background. That is not to say that religion always has to be portrayed positively or in terms religious people themselves might accept. Far from it. Movies should certainly portray religion critically and imaginatively, in ways that some might find difficult and offensive, like Spotlight (2015) or The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), to take a couple of rather obvious examples.

First Reformed inhabits the world of American Christianity quite well. It subtly contrasts the contemplative and liturgical forms of Christian faith, often described as “mainline” in American parlance, with its megachurch, evangelical cousin. The central tension of the movie concerns the psychological and spiritual life of its main character, a minister named Ernst Toller. Toller is played by an appropriately bleak-looking Ethan Hawke, his whole body exuding an unhealthy malaise—a common theme in Schrader’s movies frequently connected to isolation and insomnia. Set against Toller’s growing sense of despair, experienced through his faith and not in spite of it, is the world of its parent church, the aptly named Abundant Life. Equipped with all the modern trappings of a suburban shopping mall, Abundant Life is led by pastor Joel Jeffers, convincingly and sympathetically played by Cedric the Entertainer. Although Toller and Jeffers get along, the contrast between their perspectives is obviously important in terms of the story, as is the contrast between their churches. At one point, because of his religiously inspired political convictions, Jeffers tells Toller that he isn’t living in the real world. In other words, if Jeffers is adaptable and flexible in trying to meet the needs of his congregation, Toller’s spirituality runs in a different direction, against the grain of the wider society in which he lives. Even the name of Jeffers’ church tells us who, by the light of most people, is doing well, and who isn’t. Not only is Toller’s health in jeopardy, then, so too is the well-being of his church. It is a shell of its former self, now more of a tourist attraction than a fully-functioning congregation. Indeed, as we see from the outset of the movie, First Reformed is bankrolled by Abundant Life and its undoubtedly much fuller coffers.

There are basically three plot lines to First Reformed. The first and most encompassing is Toller’s struggle with his own history. The second concerns a young couple in his church. Played by Amanda Seyfried and Philip Ettinger, Mary and Michael Mensana are expecting a child. But Michael is a radical climate-change activist who is profoundly depressed about what humanity is doing to the earth and cannot fathom bringing a new life into this world. In an effort to connect with Michael, Toller tells him about his own experience of loss. As a military chaplain, he had encouraged his son to enlist. He evidently feels responsible for the fact that his son was then killed in Iraq; subsequently, his marriage came to an end. Given the books we see on Toller’s shelf, which include the contemplative spirituality of Thomas Merton and a fourteenth-century mystical text called The Cloud of Unknowing, in addition to what he confides to his diary, it’s clear he is still working through his loss, almost in dialogue with God. In spite of his own doubts, Toller offers Michael thoughtful, sincere advice, suggesting that Christians must balance despair with hope. Nonetheless, Michael ends up taking his own life.

As a consequence of Michael’s death, Toller looks more closely into the environmentalist cause and becomes quite engaged, connecting it to his own disillusionment with American foreign policy and the shattering of his own life. This brings us to the movie’s third plot line, the 250th anniversary of the founding of First Reformed. The event itself, its advertising, and the costs of the repairs the church needs to host the celebration, are all underwritten by a patron of Abundant Life. It turns out that this is an industrial oil company, Balq Industries, which Michael had targeted for criticism. In fact Michael’s will stipulates that his funeral service serve as his final act of protest, setting the ceremony on lands that the oil company polluted. Understandably, when Jeffers and Toller meet with Ed Balq to discuss the anniversary celebration plans, Balq is none too pleased. While Toller briefly offers some sharp criticism, Balq effectively shuts him down with climate-change denial and business-speak condescension.

As the movie progresses each of these plot lines is woven closer and closer together. First, we have Toller himself, living alone, sick, confiding his spiritual reflections to a confessional diary, following up Michael’s research on his computer, awake into the early morning, drinking heavily. Then we have Toller’s relationship with the now-widowed Mary. Several times Mary seeks Toller out for his help. Over time he shares a series of increasingly important and very intimate experiences with her. In one of the most central moments in the movie, the two share what one might call an electrically charged, transcendent, non-sexual communion. Third, because of and alongside the first two elements, Toller is led to contemplate and almost carry out a religious-political act of extreme violence during the 250th anniversary celebration. This targets Ed Balq, certainly, and perhaps the state governor, but it will also include Reverend Jeffers and others. Although Toller doesn’t go through with his planned suicide-bombing, having taken the apparatus Michael designed but left behind after his death, and instead opts for the shock of self-flagellation, he is ultimately checked by Mary, who finds him before he can go through with his display. At the last moment the two kiss passionately, after which the movie fades to black.

First Reformed gets many things right. In addition to good writing and some excellent performances, notably Hawke’s, the way the movie is filmed is frequently stunning. Like the movie itself, the camera often moves in and out slowly, zeroing in on an image, giving the viewer the sense of a steady build-up. Some of the opening scenes, which employ this technique, are like beautiful still photographs, highlighting the proportionate elegance of straight lines—a simple beauty that the story of this movie complicates. We are treated to one such image of the titular building, its fragile dignity underlined by its juxtaposition with the oversized functionalism of Abundant Life. These minimalist shots, which are as unadorned in their aesthetics as Toller is severe in his asceticism, puncture the movie’s depiction of human interaction. These too are presented with nuanced simplicity. In twos and threes, the exchanges between Toller and Mary, Toller and Jeffers, even Toller and himself, highlight the dynamic push-and-pull of dialogue, the reciprocal give-and-take of (mis)recognition and response. Regularly, Toller cannot communicate himself fully or is unsuccessful in persuading his interlocutor. The fact that he bonds with Mary is a crucially important exception.

Both as a writer and a directer, Schrader is clearly interested in the experience and development of people who are increasingly isolated from their world. This is true from Taxi Driver (1976) and American Gigolo (1980) and Mishima (1985), through Light Sleeper (1992) and Affliction (1997), right up to Auto Focus (2002) and First Reformed itself. In the main these are movies about an alienated male protagonist who is already somewhat off-balance, a heavy-drinking night-crawler who gives the audience access to their inner monologue either through one-on-one dialogue or a diary read aloud in voice-over. Slowly but surely these figures tend to move towards a moment of extreme, violent action, usually followed by some type of promised resolution. Each of these “lonely men” feels detached or disconnected from the world around them: in Taxi Driver Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) finds the New York City through which he moves at once fascinating and morally disgusting; in Light Sleeper John Le Tour (Willem Dafoe) finds himself about to be cut off from a livelihood he no longer desires as mountains of garbage pile up on the streets due to a strike; in Affliction Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte) is a divorcee whose daughter doesn’t want to be around him, a cop who gets little respect from his peers and has to take on additional menial jobs around town to make a living, and a son whose alcoholic and abusive father has poisoned his capacity for responsibility and relationship.

Toller is quite clearly a character who should be considered in this light. Like them, his painful past has alienated him from himself, from those he loves, and from the society around him; like them, new circumstances lead him to consider and then carry out an extreme act of violence; like them, once he has done so he is able to find a modicum of resolution, in Toller’s case through his relationship to Mary. It is perhaps noteworthy that the movie’s resolution occurs through a relationship with another person and not really in any definable religious terms. I began this review by complaining about the lack of good representation of religious experience in movies. I do not wish to fault First Reformed for absenting religion from its resolution. Rather, the fact that its resolution doesn’t incorporate its religious elements led me to consider its aesthetic and political implications.

First, consider another of Schrader’s movies: Mishima. As a biopic interspersed with short presentations of the Japanese author’s fiction, the movie ends by wrapping Mishima’s ritual suicide into the endings of four of his stories, each of which also depicts death and/or suicide. Mishima was a far-right nationalist whose failed coup d’état led him to commit seppuku. Notably, First Reformed comes very close to finishing on similar terms, with a ritualized, suicidal death. But Mary interrupts Toller and offers him the love and recognition he needs. In that sense it’s a bit more like American Gigolo and Light Sleeper, both of which end with the male protagonist in jail, met by the person in whom their love is to be reciprocated. But in the case of First Reformed this type of resolution stands someone at odds with the causes of Toller’s despair and alienation. Yes, there are personal elements, including the death of his son and the breakup of his marriage. However, he connected these developments to wider social and political issues. At the start of the movie Toller maintains a minimum of Christian hope in the face of personal despair. If he is critical of American foreign policy because of the war in Iraq, Michael’s suicide only heightens his political awareness. So, on the one hand, we hear Toller sharpening his prophetic criticism of his world, given in Christian terms. This leads to a sense of greater conviction, but it also leads to greater alienation. On the other hand, he finds a new connection to life and hope in the person of Mary. As we see, he shares with her not only a transformatively intimate encounter, but also the simple quotidian joy of riding a bike. Toller reconnects to himself and his world by reconnecting to another person.

If we abstract from the interpersonal element of Toller’s story and consider his actions as those of someone trying to deal with strong geopolitical and socioeconomic forces, we can pinpoint Schrader’s larger thematic interests: a person whose circumstances and character lead them to push back in an extreme, violent, and more or less “ineffective” way. I say “ineffective” because the characters themselves do not feel they have a choice in the matter. Watching them on screen, we see that they have to act out in some way or another. To them the expression of their action is what justifies it, not its effectiveness. If Mishima’s attempt to express his alienation in political terms ends in death, Toller’s political motivations are deflected into romantic love.

This leads me to raise a concluding question about the politics of this type of narrative, what Terry Eagleton has called the “ideology of the aesthetic.” Do Schrader’s stories, with their almost solipsistic focus on concrete particularity, on individuals in isolation and their tentative reconciliations, offer themselves as a substitute satisfaction for political liberation? Is the type of resolution Schrader offers mystifying and does it therefore block the kind of political reflection which would represent a much more genuine opportunity for the reconciliation his characters are looking for?3 This is to state the case more sharply than I am inclined to feel about it. But putting it this way at least raises the challenge clearly. Yes, First Reformed is a fine movie. Even so, perhaps especially so, as good art it is certainly not exempt from political criticism.

  1. Evidently I am speaking of movies accessible in North America, mostly in English, sometimes in French, and less often in other languages. While my remark is not based on any statistical information, a survey of recent nominees for various movie awards would seem to lend credence to my claim. ↩︎
  2. When I watched it several years ago, I found it astonishing that Mary Beard’s BBC documentary “Meet the Romans” made virtually no reference whatsoever to religion. If you were travel back in time to meet actual Romans, as I am sure Beard would agree, religion was tightly interwoven with practically everything they did. Her justly admired SPQR (Penguin, 2018) begins with the phrase “Ancient Rome is important.” To which I would reply, even more emphatically and for equally historical reasons, “religion is important.” ↩︎
  3. For the specific way Eagleton frames these questions, see his The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Blackwell, 1990, p. 9. ↩︎
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