by William Collen
Paul Schrader’s excellent yet ambiguous First Reformed is a tightly-would account of the descent into anger and despair of someone who should have known better. The film concerns itself with the difference between our outward-facing presentation to the world and what we are really like on the inside; it also asks us to question whatever certainties we might have about our own ability to withstand the darkness we all have in the depths of our hearts.
Ernst Toller is the pastor of a historic church which is approaching its 250th anniversary. By all outward appearances, things are going well for him—but under the surface, they really aren’t. Although he tries to minister to his small congregation in the best way he knows, his effectiveness is stymied by the fact that he is still reeling from the dissolution of his marriage. His health is in a serious state of disrepair, exacerbated by his out-of-control drinking habit. He is experiencing a crisis of his faith, which only gets worse as he must perform the role of wise, caring pastor, not only in front of the nearby megachurch’s youth group but also for Michael, the troubled young man who recently get released from jail for environmental terrorism. Michael has abandoned himself to utter despair after spending too much time on the internet reading about the climate crisis. Although Reverend Toller’s advice is solid and well-intentioned, it does not bear fruit in Michael’s life; soon after their meeting he kills himself, but not before asking, “Will God forgive us for what we’ve done to the earth?”
Toller tries to ease the grief of Michael’s widow Mary, but things take a more sinister turn when Mary discovers a suicide vest that Michael made. After Toller finds that his church has directly benefited from the philanthropy of a local industrialist, Michael’s question “Can God forgive us?” begins to take on an overwhelming importance for Toller. Surely, this isn’t the first time Toller has had to wrestle with such an extremely troubling issue; I wonder if he has been merely skating along until this point, and if his alleged Christianity was only a thin veneer over an internal emptiness. This would explain his doubts and his loose grip on matters of faith; the most poignant line of the film is probably when Toller, who has lost the ability to pray sincerely, tells himself that journal-writing is “a form of prayer.” We feel that, although this might be so, Toller himself wishes he didn’t have to resort to journaling, and that he could talk to God directly. When Mary asks him, “Can you pray with me?” Toller’s words seem substantial, but we can sense the hollowness they betray.
Unmoored from the community around him, Toller begins to ally himself with the more violent fringe of environmental activism, and his own interpretations of Biblical passages begin to take a turn towards condoning revolutionary action. Although he considers using Michael’s suicide vest at First Reformed’s 250th anniversary celebration, he changes his mind and poisons himself instead. His last thoughts, after drinking a glass of drain cleaner, are of passionately kissing Mary.
This is a dark, tense, complex film. Shots are staged and crafted with camerawork reminiscent of a horror movie; the true horror is that we must watch Toller sink into the clutches of despair and we can do nothing about it. Schrader has crafted a character who elicits our pity even while he persists in making a mess of nearly all his relationships and especially his health. Ethan Hawke’s performance as Toller conveys every wince of pain, and the sadness in his eyes is devastating. Michael speaks in only one scene, but his character is played powerfully as well; we can experience, through him, the pain, anger, and dread which is the common result of long contemplation of the evils of environmental destruction.
The relational tension between Mary and Toller drives the emotional arc of the film, and is fraught with ambiguity. Certain nuances and inflections lead me to believe that Toller’s interest in her is more than strictly professional. But how does Mary herself feel? I can hardly imagine she would have the emotional space to see him as anything more than her caring pastor, yet it almost seems she goes out of her way to get him involved in her life. (On my second watching of the film, I could not convince myself that she wasn’t some kind of seductress, bent on destroying him; however, I am certain that this interpretation is nowhere near what Schrader intended.) The interplay between Toller and Jeffers is at times convivial and at times cold and severe; their power dynamic is full of complexities. In all these relationships, we see Toller put on a brave face, yet we know what a wreck he really is.
Jeffers accuses Toller of being “always in the garden, sweating blood,” that he’s “not in the real world.” Could that be the root of Toller’s problems? Michael, too, spent so much time on the internet to the point of, as Mary says, having no friends and being barely sociable. The last several years in our culture have seen many people fall prey to dangerous ideas and ideologies found online. It is frightfully easy for people to become radicalized, people who most likely did not think they would do so. Whether Toller had enough critical distance to watch himself go from burned-out pastor to environmental terrorist in the space of a few weeks, or whether it all happened without his self-knowledge, is beside the point. The scriptural admonition remains: “He who stands take heed lest he fall (1 Corinthians 10:12).” But it is doubtful whether it could be said that Toller was even standing at all.
William Collen is a Christian art critic who writes about art of all kinds at ruins.blog. He can also be reached on Twitter at @william_collen. He and his family live in Omaha, Nebraska.