Inherent Despair in First Reformed
Will Paul Schrader’s transcendental drama be remembered as a product of its time or live to have its own legacy?
The true distinction of a great film lies in it’s relation to its time… The works that prove to have lasting significance are usually those most intricately and complexly involved in the cultural moment that produced them, but which they are not mere products. Robin Wood, Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan… and Beyond (1986)
This essay contains spoilers.
Before I begin, it is important to recognise that the year 2020 has, so far, been a nativity of despair and existential angst throughout an entire generation of people around the world. For Australia alone we have been witness to extreme drought, unprecedented bushfires and of course the selfish and baffling foppery of our commander-in-chief Scott Morrison; a failed corporate climber and all round political sycophant, who has time and time again demonstrated his inability to lead and whose confounding approval rating rests solely in the hands of a monopolised press. Now, we are in the midst of a worldwide pandemic that has taken thousands of lives, destroyed thousands of livelihoods, frozen Australia’s already waif arts industry and will effect thousands of lives more as the economy reels from this last critical blow. Three crises, two of which are only precursors to an even greater sequence of disasters and it is only April… At the time of writing this anyway.
This is the “cultural moment” that the films of today will be produced from and while it may seem too politically fervent an opening I thought that, given the film I chose to write about, Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (2018), contends with themes of despair and existential angst while fraternising its plot with concerns for the environment as explicitly as it does, it was only apt.
Granted First Reformed is an American indie film that screened before the events mentioned above, it is hard to deny that there is an overwhelming attitude of despair and pessimism proliferating around the world since the mid 2010’s. One only needs to scroll through Facebook to see the cynical memes about death or suicide that have become emblematic of younger generations. The cause of this despairing attitude differs from person to person; for some it’s due to the influence of social media and technology, for many it is due to the existential threat of climate change. For some it is gender politics, for others the supposed demise of “Western culture”. Some, like myself, will even find the polarising effect of identity politics, left vs. right, as a cause for some alarm. Whatever reasons there are for this bleak outlook, it will have an inextricable link to the art we see produced today. Just the same as the early 90’s saw an influx of cynical, ironic works: Pulp Fiction (1994), Clueless (1995) and Boogie Nights (1997), or how the end of the millennium saw movies such as Fight Club (1999), American Beauty (1999) or The Matrix (1999), featuring characters dissatisfied by the idealised utopian vision of society they were confronted with, the crises we face in our world today may well see a more pessimistic and despairing trend of films emerge, though it is anyone’s guess just how exactly they will manifest themselves.
This is why I’m preemptively looking back at First Reformed, a film that borrows from the visual lexicon of many of Schrader’s transcendental icons, chiefly Robert Bresson, while imbedding itself with a signature impotent rage. It is curious to wonder if its despairing outlook will be inherent in the films of this decade and if the film still holds any of the potency from its initial release. The film uses global warming as a narrative tool to leverage the protagonist’s crisis of faith, but at its core it is the study of the malignant nature of despair and how it can manifest itself into extremism. While the film’s environmental message is received loud and clear, I see there are two weaknesses in the film’s execution that could impede it from having a lasting impact. Firstly its study of Toller is too discursive to have any of the stomping power of Schrader’s previous characters and secondly any mention or image of global warming seems extraneous to the style of the film, to the point that it becomes distracting. So then, will First Reformed outrun its social and political relevance and live its own legacy, as did Schader’s seminal written work Taxi Driver (1976), or will its chief endeavour, to explore despair and sacrifice, be overlooked as it ages and be thought back upon as a product of its time?
Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), is a deeply conflicted and lonely man. Too ashamed to pray to God, he finds what little solace there is in drink and in confiding his thoughts to a diary. Toller is in turmoil for having encouraged his son to enlist during the Iraq War where he was killed, inadvertently destroying his marriage. Furthermore, he is troubled by concerning health issues; Coughing fits, vomiting, bleeding gums and bloodied urine. His pain is analogous to the pain the earth is in and his lack of concern for the warning signs mirror societies lack of concern for the earth. The church he propagates from has lost much of its sacrosanctity; it’s congregation is meagre, its donation plates empty and it sees more life as a tourist destination, selling souvenirs and offering guided tours. It is more a place of business than it is of prayer, kept afloat by Abundant Life; a mega-church that from a distance one could mistake for a Walmart, headed by the business-driven Reverend Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer) who grows concerned for Toller’s detachment from Abundant Life’s mission. Approaching the church’s 250th anniversary, a young woman, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), seeks council for her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist who believes it is immoral to bring children into a doomed world and wants her to have an abortion. “Will God forgive us for what we have done?” He asks Toller. After a failed attempt to console Michael, Toller and Mary discover that he has been hiding a suicide vest, unfolding a series of revelations that send Toller spiralling toward self-destruction.
The film presents us with a man alienated from his religion, despite physically presiding within the church, looking for an outlet to vent his suffering, which he finds in Michael’s environmental crusade. The discovery of Michael’s suicide vest acts as the catalyst for the main drama, however its infatuation with the environmental aspect dwarfs its study of extremism over the course of the film. In the opening shot we see the First Reformed church standing far in the background and as we track in, the white wooden vestiture of the building rises up to cut a swathe through the overcast sky until it lords over the frame. Toller resides in a dark and uninviting room inside the church, “outside the real world” as Jeffers comments, lit by a solitary candle and framed with a detached planimetric style. This opening sequence establishes the stage in which the main drama unfolds and Toller’s disjunction with his religion which fuels his cathartic self-destruction, an aspect explored further by Toller’s diary. The diary, a Bressonian technique also used in Taxi Driver, is a form of Liturgy for Toller and plays confidant to the inner turmoil of his life while also providing him an alternative to prayer, a practice he finds “Too painful” to continue. Much like the process of any writer, Toller often digresses into self-deprecating passages where he criticises his indulgence, elucidating the brooding nature that festers beneath his amicable and timid exterior. One can loosely see a link between Toller’s self-deprecation and Schrader’s own criticisms of his previous works.¹ Over the course of the film however, the explicit conversations and images of global warming, which lack the poignancy of Toller’s monologues or the pragmatic and withdrawn visual style of the rest of the film, begin to compete for the viewers attention. Schrader’s dialogue gets bogged down by banal bullet points of information about global warming that when heard for the first time sound confronting, but on a second viewing, appear to be copied and pasted from a brief Google search. With the introduction of Ed Balq, an oil company CEO and donor to the Abundant Life church group, the film starts to relish too indulgently in horrifying imagery of oil spills, plastic filled seagulls and of isolate polar bears on sheets of ice adrift in the ocean, none of which seems to fit well into the visual style of the movie. Almost like the opening image of the church, the explicit imagery and dialogue begins in the periphery and slowly draws closer until it lords over the entire frame. We start to lose sight of Toller’s conflict and morbid obsession and become more invested with the environments destruction within the film itself. Just as Toller inherits the mantle from Michael, we do the same from Toller.
The film’s visual style, indebted to the work of Robert Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu and Ignmar Bergman, presents a critical detachment to the subjects of the frame but is impinged during a hypnotic sequence in which Mary and Toller lie on top of each other and levitate over a trippy slide show of nature. Toller offers to perform what Mary calls a “Magical Mystery Tour” a therapeutic game she’d play with her husband in which they’d lie on top of each other and listen to each others breath. The two engage in the ritual and what begins has an intimate moment is interrupted when the two begin to levitate and then soar over lush forests, winding rivers and opalescent shoals. As the goofy trip continues the sublime images of nature relent into grey toxic waste dumps, mountains of trash and factory chimneys spewing thick effluvia. While their initial levitation feels like a powerful evocation of Toller’s feelings toward Mary, the continuance of the sequence completely robs the film of its detached effect. Why would Schrader feel the need to visualise Toller’s unconscious this way, when he was doing sufficiently well through the use of the diary? The answer seems to be that the sequence serves as antecedent to its unclear, potentially imagined ending, a point which I address below. The biggest issue with this sequence lies in the banal and uncreative hallucinatory imagery, which looks like second rate stock footage, not even remotely akin to the “rules” Schrader and cinematographer Alexander Dynan had established. In any case the sojourn into Toller’s mind acts as another example of the films banal indulgence in environmental imagery and detracts from its exploration of Toller’s descent into extremism.
Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, and indeed many of Schrader’s previous characters, Toller’s catharsis is a violent and anguished one that culminates in a violent climax. Both Travis and Toller are confronted by major problems in their society and both films use these issues to explore the inner turmoil of the characters. For the former it is the streets of New York in the 70’s, which J. Hoberman of the Village Voice describes as; “One of the worst moments in New York’s history — the city as America’s pariah, a crime-ridden, fiscally profligate, graffiti-festooned moral cesspool.”² For the latter it is mankind’s disregard for the destruction of the earth. Where the two films differ is in the execution of their endings. In Taxi Driver the crime ridden streets of New York provide impetus for Travis to carry out the climactic shootout; a bloody sacrament that partially redeems both him and the city, though their futures are left uncertain. In the final shot after Travis drops off Betsy, his only link to social normalcy, we see a split image of the streets of New York through the windscreen and the rear view mirror of Travis’ taxi; simultaneously looking forward to a brighter future and back into a violent past, trapped in the liminal space between and leaving viewers to wonder if he’ll continue to rehabilitate or relapse back into his monster-as-human psychopathy. At the climax of First Reformed the stage is set for Toller to use the suicide vest to assassinate the heads of BALQ at the churches 250th anniversary service, but he is unable to when he discovers the pregnant Mary is attending. Unable to follow through, he instead lacerates his chest with barbed wire and pours himself a tall glass of drain cleaner. At this moment Mary appears across the room and the two embrace for a long passionate kiss invoking the camera to circle around them rapturously before a hard cut to black. This ending is unclear and it is left ambiguous as to whether the moment was imagined or not, the result seeming sloppy and undecided. In denying the film a decisive ending, Toller’s catharsis is left incomplete. The film either suggests that hope for redemption rests in the faith of others; in the child that Mary is bringing into the world or, if this is the vision of a dying priest vomiting his guts out, that there is no redemption in this life, just an abrupt cut to black, but it lacks to the conviction to to commit to either. Schrader even admits to editing the scene so as to make it unclear to himself whether or not the scene is imagined by Toller.³ Where Taxi Driver unapologetically depicts Travis’ violent rampage, without establishing an attitude toward his actions and still having an ambiguous ending, First Reformed fails to commit to an ending at all.
Despite Schrader’s best efforts, the story divulges too heavily into harrowing images of global warming’s effects without proper consideration for how to integrate them into the style of the film, that it demarcates its own exploration of despair, extremism and the Church, giving it inadequate room to flourish, an effect emphasised by it’s indecisive and truncated ending. This is not helped by Mary, whose character (Despite Seyfried giving her all) is poorly developed and functions similarly to the environmental subject matter; as a tool to leverage Toller’s inner turmoil and not as a living product of the world of the film.
Perhaps the shadow of its environmental message looms too large and resonates too well in the zeitgeist of today, especially of younger generations, myself included, that it consumes any of the films meaning, extraneous of that shadow. This is not to suggest that global warming is an unimportant topic in a film; it most certainly is. In a world where its impacts no longer ripple like transparent draperies of heat on a far flung horizon, but are being seen and felt right now; taking the form of extreme drought, exacerbated bushfires, bleached reefs and a crippled biodiversity, it is now as important as ever to discuss this topic, fervently too I might add. When you consider also that despite its very, very apparent and detrimental presence, global warming is still being ignored by politicians who scoff and guffaw as they fill their pockets with dirty money linked to big polluters, meat industries and fossil fuel concerns, all with the doomed intention to make just one more dollar before everything inevitably comes crashing down, then First Reformed seems justified to be as involved in the topic as it is. However I believe that the film is hindered by the heavy handed way it uses the subject as a narrative tool, which will prevent it from having any lasting impact.
Yes, the images of global warming seen in First Reformed are important and yes, I am glad Paul Schrader chose to make this film, but I do not think it is a masterpiece that fulfilled it’s ambition. I enjoyed the film, the performances, the cinematography, but I don’t believe it is so much as linked to our cultural moment as it is a product of it, not in the sense that it was thought up by a studio think tank and altered at the behest of test screenings, but in the sense that it is subservient to a polarised generation of film viewers. All this being said, whether or not it will supersede its current environmental relevance is a question for time and hindsight and will greatly depend on how much the world chooses to be impacted by global warming in the years to come.
¹ Anderson Neville Joel, The Infant and the Cadaver: Paul Schrader’s Films and Criticism, Mubi Notebook, July 7, 2018.
² Hooberman J, 35 Years Later Taxi Driver Still Stuns, The Village Voice, March 16, 2011
³ Coppola Sophia, “This is how it should end with Paul Schrader and Sophie Coppola” May 30, 2018, in A24 Podcast, 46:35, https://a24films.com/notes/2018/05/episode-04-this-is-how-it-should-end-with-paul-schrader-sofia-coppola