Reverend Ernst Toller leads an austere life at the First Reformed Church: fix the same leaky sink, eat dinner alone, down a bottle of whiskey, grab a restless night of sleep before preaching to a congregation of less than ten people. His beautiful, colonial-era church is on its last leg, driven into extinction by the megachurch down the road, what with its gregarious pastor and 5000-seat auditorium.
Toller knows other priests and pastors view First Reformed as the “souvenir shop,” and they whisper about his social awkwardness and his tragic past from before he donned the cloth, but he believes in God’s Word. He dedicates himself to unfiltered truth for the next 12 months, writing in a journal everyday without holding back a single thought. The priest is going to confession, it seems. Thus, we have a framing device for Toller’s coming crisis of faith.
First Reformed is clearly a deeply personal project for writer/director Paul Schrader, who comes from a Calvinist background. The film is fairly light on plot-centered action, choosing instead to focus on Toller’s day-to-day struggles and theological musings. For this story, Schrader adopts a Transcendental style (a phrase Schrader himself coined), eschewing many of the filmmaking techniques we as an audience would expect: non-diegetic music, quick cuts during conversations, conspicuous camera movements that seem to say “Notice my directing, aren’t I artsy?”, and the like. We are mere observers in Toller’s life, viewing events objectively, unable to intervene when things get dark. There are small scenes that, plot-wise, lead nowhere, but they hammer home Toller’s loneliness and unease. We get the little moments of quiet between lines of dialogue that actually occur in real life but most films would edit out. Entire conversations are contained in one static shot, and the lack of musical score drives home the real-world dread of certain scenes and the anxiety of all the others.
It is significant to note that Ethan Hawke as Toller is present in every single scene of the 105-minute film, demonstrating extreme confidence in the actor’s capability—and this confidence is supremely deserved. Hawke turns in the finest performance of his career, and I desperately want to hear his name next Oscar season. Toller is a man who leans completely on God’s Word but finds his foundation splintered after a turn of events. As he goes about his priestly duties, we see Toller’s anxieties seep through his actions, even as he frantically tries to slap Band-Aids over the cracks. Hawke breathes life into Toller, creating immense sympathy and understanding for his plight.
Hawke’s performance particularly shines when Toller is forced to maintain his priestly demeanor when his faith is crumbling. Schrader wisely plays a few of these moments for sharp comedy—we hear heady spiritual philosophy from Toller’s journal as we see him scrubbing toilets; a young megachurch member grows defensive when Toller brings up passages about helping the poor; etc.—but Hawke is positively tragic in the role of a man on a downhill path.
Toller’s life takes a turn when he is asked to speak with Michael, a young husband who lives in a constant state of existential dread. The world is dying, he believes, and mankind is killing it. What’s the point in going on if global warming and climate change will make life unbearable in a matter of years? “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?” he asks the reverend.
In order to impart my full thoughts on First Reformed, I must touch upon potential spoilers. I will not say anything of specific plot points, but I will speak in broad strokes.
Toller comforts Michael with all the theological rhetoric he can muster—and Schrader’s script is wonderful—but as events spiral, he can’t shake this idea. Eventually, he enters Michael’s personal hell, diving into obsession over mankind’s poisoning of the Earth.
For ¾ of First Reformed, I was absolutely riveted. The performances, direction, and writing were top-notch. I had bought into the themes—Toller has taken up Michael’s crusade that only leads to self-destruction; he drinks heavily, poisoning his body as he obsesses over those who poison the Earth; should a modern priest follow Jesus’s teachings or the church’s interests?
Got it, I’m in. How does it all play out?
A scene occurs—those who have seen the film know exactly what scene I’m talking about—and suddenly, I’m watching something totally different. Character dynamics and motivations are shifted without explanation or set-up. Remember the Transcendental style I mentioned earlier? Out the window. Ominous music, artsy camera techniques, we now have it all.
Before, I was pinned to my seat as we peeled back the layers of a horrifically real tragedy, and then in one fell swoop, we get an oddly over-the-top climax. It seems that, after that scene, the film began operating on metaphor. I respect Schrader as a filmmaker for going for it, but it wasn’t for me. Still, I have to applaud Schrader—taking my personal preference out of it, I have to admit he nailed what he was going for. Hawke is still incredible, the tension is alive, and there are awe-inspiringly disturbing moments in this third act.
But it isn’t the third act of the movie I had bought into.
As I flesh out my own taste in film, I see that I’m not a fan of a bait-and-switch. I’m not talking good ole plot twists à la The Prestige or Fight Club. I am specifically referring to movies that change genre midway through, which is how I view First Reformed.
Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Til Dawn is an infamous example: the first half is a brilliantly paced crime thriller with interesting characters, a heart-pumping objective, great tension and—just kidding, now it’s a campy monster B-movie.
Annihilation, a sci-fi thriller from this year, is similar in my eyes. We start with very real people, very real stakes, very real terror. And then the movie switches to 100% metaphor. Things happen that make sense in the abstract theme but not within the established narrative. Pick one or the other.
One may point to another film I enjoyed this year, The Death of Stalin, which was a madcap satiric comedy up until its dour ending, and call me out. And I would say…”Fair point.” But also, all these characters are dastardly, evil, and moronic, and the end of the film (besides the fact that it reflects what happened in history) is a natural conclusion of their arcs. They were consistent throughout, and consequences caught up.
This is all to say I adored First Reformed up until its shift, and even then, I admired its craft. For those who enjoy a bit (eh, a lot) of ambiguous metaphor in the latter quarter of their heavy-hitting dramas, this is for you. I, on the other hand, long for a more fitting, Transcendental conclusion to the story I was so invested in.