Review: First Reformed
PLOT BY CONVERSATION
Ethan Hawke plays the tormented Reverent Ernst Toller, shepherd to the dwindling “tourist church” called First Reformed. He is introduced to us through his narration, a pensive and dutiful exercise of recording the thoughts and facts of the day in a journal. “A form of prayer,” he calls it. Honest and transparent. But this narration is soon interrupted by the pastoral duties of a reverend to a small, outlying church: the tending of faucets and souls. Because, of course, the hot water is leaking in the men’s room and one particular attendee, Mary, would like a word with him.
She’s worried about her husband, Michael, who’s recently become involved in a Green Planet movement and sits around at home all day stewing, troubled, obsessed. She’s fallen pregnant but he can’t rectify the idea of bringing a child into this world. Toller agrees to speak with him and in the trepidatious conversation that follows, we’re introduced to the less conventional characters of Doubt, Martyrdom, Loss… Meaning. These themes anxiously pour out from the young man like an environmentalist’s book of Revelation as our attentive reverend soaks it all in, carefully measuring his words and sharing his pain. Toller is not entirely convinced of Michael’s newfound despair, at least not yet, but the table is set.
See, conversation is a crucial revelator of the film. We get an unflinching window into the life and times of First Reformed through these private moments. The religious, or perhaps even irreligious, exchanges are so familiar that it’s unnerving to see them play out. I would often find myself thinking (usually with a frustrated groan), “mm, I know that person” or, “I’ve heard this argument.” From small talk, to formalities, to tempers, all the way down to twisted truths, it’s all so real and feels almost like an exposure and an indictment all at once. These tense exchanges hint at dubious motivations, skewed priorities, schools of thought, and there is no effort to hide the strain this places on our troubled man of the cloth.
The earliest arc of the film is characterized by Toller’s words. Often like poetry on screen, his pacing and narration is measured and clear which makes it all the more poignant as he begins to lose hold of his prim composure. As the world weighs on his soul, as he is confronted with loss and truths about himself, as people tap into his vulnerabilities and wounds, his disposition begins to fracture and he becomes pointed and careless with his words. He becomes agitated and again, conversation reveals new layers. Through the spiraling turmoil of the plot we begin to see some of the earliest threads of despair and hopelessness now take root in Toller, molding his posture into a man fixed on the dark night of the soul. Almost as if he needs his hour to be dark, as if he needs to be the tortured soul, remarking, “A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.”
STYLE AND STORYTELLING
On the A24 podcast, director Paul Schrader revealed that, “With these spiritual kind of things, you can’t really push anybody into the mystery. All you can do is guide them. But those steps they take - they have to take.” See, First Reformed doesn’t hold your hand as the story unfolds or tell you how you’re “supposed” to feel with a sentimental score. It just simply… “nods” in a certain direction, suggesting that perhaps you should look over at this or listen to that. What should be holding your attention and guiding your thoughts is exposed by removing all other distractions and distilling the moment to its bare essentials.
One of the first things you’re sure to notice, for instance, is the squarish 4:3 aspect ratio of the picture. It’s a throwback, for sure, and feels old and familiar. While it may seem like you’re losing content as a result, losing a wider field of view or peripheral details, it’s almost as if you take in more as a result. Rather than convoluted framing or camera tricks, the whole room is placed before you. The camera sits, unmoving, and the world all takes place before you as though you are some stark and silent observer. The film also makes regular use of exceptionally lengthy shots that serve up all you need to see at once and force you to focus on what’s happening within that context. “Here is the room and all its trappings, now listen to what they have to say.” In fact, you become so accustomed to this still camerawork that the precious few times in which the camera actually moves, it feels surreal and otherworldly. It’s arresting. It demands your attention.
Take the style of narration, as well. Like intravenous feeding, Schrader describes, you won’t be able to taste it and you won’t be able to feel it but it starts to take effect after time. However, he does this from the singular point of view of Ernst Toller so that you’re seeing this character go about his day, about his life, and never a moment of story passes without him. He is your singular point of reference and you can either hate him or identify with him, with little room for anything in between. Until he starts to become untethered. A little more, then a little more still, until his tumultuous and unhinged behavior feels so far gone that he is no longer deserving of your identification. The movie pushes you. How far can it take you? How dark - how haunted - how far can it drag on your need to identify with Toller before you say, “No, that’s too much.” It’s this very place that Schrader seeks to place you.
ENDING (a spoiler-free note)
The ending of this film can be understood in two ways. It’s the kind of experience where you may find yourself googling “First Reformed Ending Explai-” and the autocomplete search options reveal that you and about a million other people have sought the same answers. However, the crossroads at which you stand as the credits roll was an extremely intentional balancing act. Schrader wrote the conclusion in such a way that each avenue, both Hopeful and Hopeless, are equally plausible and neither is weighted more favorably than the other. It is in your hands. It is up to you to read into or explain away.
And in appropriate fashion, I leave it to you. How you choose to define this narrative and navigate the mystery is in your hands. Personally I took the rare opportunity to choose hope; not because it’s the kind of movie I prefer (often I want the more difficult story told) but because I can connect those dots more easily. That said, this same debate among friends has been a lot of fun and I’ve enjoyed entertaining the varied interpretations of the film. If you want to share your thoughts on it, write us at firstname.lastname@example.org. I promise we’d love to geek out about the film sometime.