First Reformed (2017)

*. Paul Schrader. Now there’s a name I hadn’t heard in a while. I had to go check an up-to-date filmography to find out what he’s been doing since Affliction (the last movie of his I’d seen).
*. Well, he has been keeping busy, albeit doing things I’m not that interested in. So I guess we just fell out of touch.
*. Schrader started out as a film critic and scholar, which makes his commentary on First Reformed well worth a listen. He talks a lot about the kind of movie he was trying to make, and explains a lot of the references and allusions First Reformed is thick with. He mentions his propensity to “crib and steal” from other movies, which goes a lot further afield than the obvious debts. He also points out things that are easy to miss on a first viewing. I would have never noticed the suicide Michael standing in the doorway of the rusted hulk in the final drone shot of an apocalyptic Earth, for example.
*. As far as the obvious debts go we have Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest and Bergman’s Winter Light. Other prominent borrowings include Tarkovsky (for the levitation scene) and Dreyer’s Ordet (for the ending). Schrader says he “bound it all together with the glue of Taxi Driver,” but this strikes me as a bit of a stretch. I don’t think First Reformed alludes to Taxi Driver so much as it shows an interest in the same sort of story and character arc.
*. In terms of the kind of movie it is, Schrader uses terms like contemplative and transcendental film. One of the characteristics of this kind of movie is its slow pace, but I wouldn’t call First Reformed “slow film” as that term is usually used. Schrader himself mentions how audiences today are so acclimated to a fast pace that a slower picture doesn’t have to be very slow. Just slowing things down a little bit makes a big difference.
*. The key concept Schrader grabs hold of is “withholding.” This is a movie infused with a spirit of restraint, one that purposefully gives you less: less camera movement (few tilts, pans, or tracking shots); less colour (Schrader originally wanted to shoot it in black and white but had to settle for a muted palette, displayed most directly in the monochromatic pancake house); minimalist set decoration (homes not just with few furnishings but no furnishings at all); the use of uncomfortably long shots without clear beginnings or ends (wielding boredom, as Schrader puts it, like a scalpel); and deliberately underscored (I don’t think there’s any music heard until over halfway through the movie, and then it mostly takes the form of a muted “soundscape”).
*. The point of all this is to force the usually passive film audience (conditioned to respond to forceful cues) into becoming more active and engaged. Let’s take a look at how this might work with regard to the ending (and here I’ll give you a spoiler alert because you really shouldn’t be reading any further if you haven’t seen the movie yet).
*. My first impression of the ending was to be startled at its abruptness. I also thought it seemed a flimsy cop-out. How could Toller be redeemed in such a highly improbable way? How do we go from his rather caddish rejection of his ex (choir leader Esther, played by a dowdy Victoria Hill) to his fully carnal embrace of a younger woman? This just didn’t seem right.
*. In fact, I don’t think it is right as an interpretation of the end. On the commentary Schrader says he wanted to leave the question of whether Mary (Amanda Seyfried) actually comes to save Toller at the last minute open, but I’m inclined to think she does not and that this is only an ecstatic vision Toller has before dying — in Schrader’s colourful phrase, puking his guts out on all fours after drinking the Drano.
*. Here are my reasons for thinking so.

*. (1) We’ve already been prepared for such a move by the “magical mystery tour” carpet ride, that depicts what is a subjective spiritual vision. Though not wholly subjective, since Schrader, following Tarkovsky, did want this to suggest the existence of another world. Obviously Toller doesn’t really go flying off anywhere in that scene, so it’s no stretch at the end to think that he’s just imagining Mary appearing to him as an angel before those brightly backlit windows. Lighting in film is never an accident.
*. (2) How does Mary know his first name? It’s not impossible that he’s told her at some point, but I don’t recall her ever using it before in the film. And it’s worth noting that even Esther and Fuller (the head of his church) don’t use it. He’s only referred to as Reverend Toller. When she calls him Ernst here (it’s all she says) it’s striking.
*. (3) In a movie that spends so much time quoting other movies it’s hard to miss the Vertigo kiss they come together for, though Schrader doesn’t mention this particular allusion on the commentary. And such a kiss nearly always signals a kind of unreality or fantasy. That’s the way it’s used in Vertigo and in Blade Runner 2049, for example. I think the circling camera puts us on our alert that all is not what it seems, and that this isn’t the real Mary.
*. (4) As Schrader does point out, and this is something I missed, how does Mary get into the manse? We’ve just seen that Fuller is locked out, but then she appears as if by magic.
*. (5) Finally there is the very improbability I mentioned earlier. Mary arrives just at the moment when he is about to drink the poison? And then the two embrace, despite the fact that up to this point there hasn’t been any real physical lust or passion evidenced between them?
*. Given all of these hints I wish Schrader had been a bit bolder. I don’t think this was a point in the movie where ambiguity helps. It ends up leaving us with the sense of a director who just wasn’t sure what he wanted to say. But I’m glad he at least left the door open for us to reject what we see as fantasy.

*. I said that there is no real physical relationship between Toller and Mary despite their lying on the floor together. As I see it though, this remains a chaste coupling. They leave their clothes on. We don’t see them kiss. And they end up being spiritually elevated, with what I take it is Toller’s vision of a journey through heaven to hell. That’s where his head is at.
*. I like this scene. It’s a daring gamble that I think pays off. My favourite moment, however, is where Mary’s hair falls like a veil or curtain over their faces. There’s something so perfectly and poetically chaste about this, concealing what we’ve been expecting to be a kiss while marking a total shift in where we’re going.
*. What’s remarkable is that this beautiful moment — the falling hair — was entirely serendipitous. The thing is, Amanda Seyfried actually was pregnant at the time so they wanted to use a body double for her in the magical mystery tour shots. This required obscuring her face. So they came up with the idea of having her hair fall down. Talk about a happy accident.
*. Coming from a guy like Schrader you have to think the use of the hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” must have been some kind of nod to The Night of the Hunter. But I’m not sure what the connection is. Toller giving over to the dark side while channeling Harry Powell? That doesn’t seem right. I don’t remember Schrader mentioning his use of the hymn during his commentary.
*. I didn’t care for the character of the industrialist Barq at all. He’s an overdrawn caricature, driving around in his chauffeured SUV and insisting that his church (that is, the one he’s paying for) reflect his own politics by being apolitical. He also takes an antagonistic attitude toward Toller that goes over the line and is uncalled for. I can only accept such a character in a movie as filling a necessary dramatic role. But he shouldn’t be in a movie this good.
*. Reverend Toller is a highly educated, literate man who keeps a journal that he writes out in longhand. Good for him! But . . . the only way he can write is in block capitals. Yes, it has come to this. I wonder if that was realism or just a concession to an audience not being able to read cursive any more. Either way, it’s kind of sad.
*. I’ve never been a big Ethan Hawke fan but I give him credit for being convincing here in a difficult role. As Schrader puts it, he’s a character who leans away from us. But he sells the notion of someone who has lost himself (he’s clearly chosen a suicidal path at the beginning of the film) and is looking to find some meaning in his life through an act of self-sacrifice. A cause presents itself and he is gone.

*. There are also a number of interesting points made along the way about the old church vs. the new, of being in the world and out of it. The big new church and its mission isn’t undercut as being the usual hypocritical, money-grubbing, spiritual entertainment but is instead shown as having its own principles and integrity. Extremism is looked at with concern, the product of the Internet mostly, but then we see Toller’s face lit by the screen of Michael’s laptop and know that he is just as susceptible to being drawn down the rabbit hole. I can’t judge the theology in play, but the notion that preservation is itself an act of creation struck me as an interesting prayer.
*. First Reformed is a very good movie that I really liked. It is almost a great movie that I loved. I think it successfully plays on the notion of withholding and restraint throughout, right up to Toller’s screaming into his cassock to muffle the sound. I would have played the end differently, but one shouldn’t criticize a movie for not being the movie one would have made if given the chance. It has to be judged on its own terms. I guess what I wanted the most was more of a glimpse into characters like Esther and Mary. Toller is so misguided and mistaken throughout the film that he begins to fade next to them. What, for example, is Mary thinking when he insists that she not attend the church ceremony? Does she know, on some level, what his plans are? I think she does. But how much else does she know?

2 thoughts on “First Reformed (2017)

  1. Tom Moody

    A similarity to Taxi Driver: the protagonist reaches such a pit of despair it doesn’t matter what he does to get out of it. Bickle: Kill a politician or kill a pimp, take your pick. Toller: Blow up a polluter or wrap yourself in barbed wire. In both cases the personal overwhelms the political — given this, it’s almost pointless to go into this much detail about what’s happening to the environment — the story is about saving one narcissist, not saving the planet. Blowing up Balq would be the shortest path to the latter, but the film flinched from that. (PS — the ending was ridiculous — a curveball because Schrader couldn’t figure out how to end it. Watching it, I wasn’t sure whether Toller had removed the barbed wire before putting on his cassock — if not that hug would be pretty painful for both — and the Drano looked like motor oil so I wasn’t sure what he was about to drink.)
    One post-Affliction Schrader I recommend if you want a good wallow on the dark side: Auto-Focus.
    One last thought on the cinematic influences: the spinning kiss was also very reminiscent of De Palma’s Obsession, scripted by Schrader. There, it worked.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Yes, I think the only way to view the ending is as a fantasy. It’s not the way I would have preferred the film to end. I honestly thought while I was watching it that Mary was going to take it upon herself to blow up the church. I think that would have made sense with what she said earlier about sharing her husband’s convictions, and the odd look she gives Toller when he tells her not to come to the service. It also would have fit with Toller’s blind spot, or obliviousness, when it comes to really understanding other people.

      I agree about Bickle and Toller having a similar character arc. Haven’t seen Auto-Focus, but I’ve got it on my list to watch now. I’m always down for a wallow on the dark side.


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