When a movie is not only titled First Reformed, but also features the line “What is your only comfort in life and death?,” it’s bound to get the attention of folks steeped in the Heidelberg Catechism. Is it possible for an expression of the Reformed faith to be found in a film that’s been hailed by mainstream critics as one of the best of the year so far? Apparently so. While First Reformed is far from inspirational, I interpret both its style and substance as affirmations of God’s grace and providence.
Writer-director Paul Schrader comes from the Reformed tradition, having graduated from Grand Rapids Christian High School and attended Calvin College. But there has been little in his work that mirrored his religious heritage (with the exception of 1979’s Hardcore, which he described in a Think Christian interview as “a young man’s FU to his father and his church”). Now, in the latter stages of his career, he has made a film not only set in a historic Reformed church, but ripe with Reformed theology.
“I didn’t have to do a lot of research,” Schrader recently told NPR. Reflecting on his upbringing, Schrader said he had to leave “the way a bullet leaves a gun,” and jokingly said that if you don’t leave that way, you only get to Kalamazoo, Mich., before they pull you back. Now the prodigal has returned, at least part of the way (he mentions, in the interview, that he attends a Presbyterian church). He’s also finally made a movie in the transcendental style about which he literally wrote the book.
The transcendental style is so countercultural (as Reformed Christians should be) that viewers conditioned by special effects and non-stop action may feel bored. The camera is stationary, the colors are washed out, and the storytelling happens in long single takes rather than quickly edited sequences. The slow pace mirrors the slow demise of Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke), the film’s main character. In an earnest performance, Hawke portrays Toller as a seriously ill, humorless, distant, hardly likable man. Toller is collapsing under the weight of this cultural moment: he has lost a son (and subsequently his marriage) to the Iraq War and is also deeply disturbed by the ecological devastation of our planet. He wrestles with the question, “Can God forgive us?” and cannot find an answer. His descent into despair is difficult to watch.
Toller chronicles his “sickness unto death” (consciously borrowing Kierkegaard's phrase) in ways similar to that of Travis Bickle in 1976’s Taxi Driver, which was written by Schrader and directed by Martin Scorsese. Bickle (Robert De Niro) explodes into violence by the film’s end; in First Reformed, violence threatens in a similar way. (Fair warning: significant spoilers ahead.)
Toller's descent into despair is difficult to watch.
By the climax of the film, set at the 250th anniversary celebration of the tiny, First Reformed church where he is the pastor, Toller’s despair has led him to plan a mass murder-suicide using an explosive vest. He is intent on destroying not only his church, but also the pastor of the megachurch that supports him, the businessman who controls the megachurch and whose energy company has spoiled the local environment, and the various civic officials and guests in attendance. While the organist plays “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” Toller arms the vest for his act of holy warfare. His plans are ruined, however, when he sees the one person he has become attached to—a pregnant parishioner named Mary (Amanda Seyfried)—enter the church. Salvation will be delivered by Mary.
Toller removes the vest, wailing with emotion for the first time in the film. Meanwhile, the megachurch pastor (Cedric Kyles, aka Cedric the Entertainer) tries to enter the attached parsonage to find Toller, whose absence is delaying the start of the celebration. But the doors are locked. Toller then wraps barbed wire around himself in a gruesome act of self-flagellation. Those waiting inside the church decide to begin the service, which begins with a vocal solo of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” Back in the parsonage, Toller pours himself a glass of drain cleaner. Mary suddenly appears in room, the glass falls to the floor, and Toller and Mary embrace and kiss. The formerly stationary camera swirls around them. The screen goes dark. The film ends. The group of people I attended First Reformed with said out loud, “What just happened?”
The ending is abrupt and deliberately ambiguous, but my take on it is this: Toller has drunk the drain cleaner and is dead by the time he’s embracing Mary. Their act isn’t eros but agape love. Toller has fallen into the everlasting arms of his sovereign savior. The door to the parsonage was locked. How could Mary have entered? The camera had been stationary, but now it moves, as it had moved earlier in the film in a mystical scene when Toller and Mary left the bounds of time and space. I believe we’re in a similar place at the end—not in the parsonage anymore, but in heaven.
Consider that one major character has been absent the entire movie: God. Toller lost his way, but God has not lost Toller. Early in the film, Toller counsels a young man and tells him that grace covers us all. Obviously, Toller is trying to convince himself of the truth of that statement as much as he is trying to convince the young man. Schrader, then, has left the door open to read the film in such a way that grace does cover us all, and to see that, indeed, our only comfort in death—even when we’ve lost the sense of that comfort in life—is in our faithful savior Jesus Christ.
If ever a movie character illustrated the impossibility of being able to save himself, it is Ernst Toller. Yet Toller is saved. It is remarkable to see this sense of comfort playing on contemporary movie screens, though perhaps not that remarkable when considering the faith in which Paul Schrader was born and raised.