Watching Paul Schrader’s new contemplative picture First Reformed was a journey in anxiety. Not just because every stiffly bracketed frame, every groan of synthesizer, every exercise in revulsion the plot throws at the screen was designed to produce it. That’s true too. No, I was anxious because this was a movie about faith in general, and Christianity specifically.
Movies can capture so many powerful and profound moments, but they often fall short with faith. Religion is an easy enough target, of course. Religion is human, and we humans are absurd and contradictory creatures all the time. But even that approach in popular movies has lost some of its charm. We live in an increasingly post-christian nation, after all, and what once felt like punching up feels now more like punching across. If things continue as they have, it will eventually feel like punching down.
What’s left is Christian symbols and imagery used to add heft to otherwise straightforward (though meaningful) character moments. If I see another handsome Hollywood hunk splayed out cruciform because they finally did something less than selfish, i’m going to throw my drink at the screen.
Of course, the main competition is PureFlix, purveyors of Christ-centered revenge porn for the faithful and guilty pleasures for the redeemed. I actually didn’t hate God’s Not Dead, but only because it was a shallow power fantasy catered to me, the Christian. There are plenty for everyone else in the world, why not for us? Its astuteness was this: it very accurately portrayed the world we “evangelical” types wish we were living in. If that means writing God into the script (shudder), what’s a little fun?
First Reformed is much more ambitious than all that. There’s no shortage of social commentary in the film, but the political themes never overshadow the core of the story. That core is Ernst Toller, a man radicalized by grief. At the beginning of this movie his mania is latent and internal. By night he wrestles mightily (in journal form) with the darkest apparitions of his spirit, which leaves him by day a sad and sick man, alternatingly passionless and dour.
Then one of Ernst’s remaining parishioners blows his own head off, and that grief finds an opportunity to take external form. We never get any indication before the suicide that Ernst would die for the sake of the planet, but by the end of the movie he is prepared to do that and more, quite literally picking up the eco-terrorist mantle of his fallen friend.
Perhaps the pastor role was itself a character Ernst played. In his long but tapered garment, Ethan Hawke (i’m going to mention the actor’s names, because the performances are uniformly great) cuts the wan figure of a wannabe Neo, except unlike The Matrix nobody else is under the illusion that he’s the chosen one. Ernst idolizes the stern, principled dutch reformers who had pastored his church back when it still had the breath of God in it. He loves their ideals, their sufferings, their erudite thinking. If only their kind had inherited the earth instead of the evangelicals and their mega churches.
It is that this juncture that the movie finds its most perceptive angle of critique. Ernst is insane, but he is also successfully set apart from the affairs of the world. He (and the viewer with him) can clearly discern the hypocrisy of the Abundant Life megachurch that owns his building and the scientific megacorp who bankroll them. Schrader has no fear of putting these forces together and letting the sparks fly – a particularly harsh and brilliant diner scene leaves the viewer wondering who if anyone they could possibly root for. And yet, every man at the table is right in their own way – the CEO in his criticism of Ernst’s madness, Ernst in his critique of the evils of unbridled greed, and the evangelical in his willingness to live in the real world while still attempting to do God’s work. Nobody gets a monopoly on the pithy dialogue, and many individual lines will stick in your head long after you finish the film.
Who comes out ahead here? To my money, it’s the evangelical, but at great cost. His church is simultaneously redeeming the world and enabling its worst excesses, winning souls to Christ while leaving others hungry for something more substantial (of course, this requires taking the doomsday claims of the eco-terrorists very seriously and essentially at face value, but the movie itself very much does – and matches that claim with images that are difficult to dismiss). But the movie isn’t here to laugh at Cedric Kyle’s compromised charismatic. Rather, it simply asks if there is a better alternative. And it doesn’t really have an answer.
Philosophically, the movie lays out a problem without a satisfying solution (D: none of the above?), but it avoids throwing viewers into total despair by never letting the small human story be swallowed by its monstrous themes. This is still Ernst’s movie – the ending removes any doubt of this. And what an ending it is.
A moment of ecstacy and then a sudden, soundless cut to black. It’s more than a little artsy, and the cynic in me wanted to hate it. But i loved it. It was perfect.
Hope lies in Mary, the pregnant widow of the suicide, played with a wide-eyed but grounded intensity by Amanda Seyfried. She has become to the desperate minister the embodiment of God’s presence in female form, the Beatrice to his Dante. When she walks into the church in the closing act, there is no question that Ernst will abandon his plans to go out in fiery, angry spectacle. When she enters his room, he immediately abandons his backup plan of death by drain cleaner (it’s a testament to this movie’s visual uniqueness that, despite a grisly suicide and a morbid suicide plot, the two biggest reactions from the crowd were incited by something being poured into a whiskey glass). She calls him by his first name, and we viewers realize that nobody has done so the whole movie.
Is her appearance real? The movie goes out of it’s way to cast a healthy amount of doubt. The light changes ever so slightly, the resolutely still camera begins to swirl. But it doesn’t matter, because what is important is that Ernst is finally realizing what he really wants, and what he wants is transcendent. He wants mystical union that is if not directly with God at least solidly marked by Divine presence, a union of constant giving and receiving that brings with it a spiritual joy that overflows its boundaries and spills out into every other aspect of life, a spring of living water from the soul. He wants Love. Not just to give love, not just to receive love. At least, not just love in the form of earthly concern. Not a product of ideals. A hinted-at affair with the choirmaster seems to have been just that. She wanted to care for him, to show earthly concern for his practical needs. Ernst makes it more than abundantly clear to the poor woman that the whole idea is odious to him. At the end we find out why – he wants transcendence.
Is Ernst and Mary’s union sexual? A little. But sex is an earthly thing with spiritual potential, sometimes a transcendent union and sometimes something we do when we’re bored or anxious or – worse – when we want to feel desired and powerful in an unavoidably ugly way. Despite this, it has the possibility of becoming sacramental, a cup that can hold, for a little while, the presence of divine grace. What Ernst and Mary are experiencing is to my eye more grace than cup. And anyway, we can’t be sure it’s really happening. If it isn’t, we’re seeing the final realizations of a dying man. If it is, the movie has veered into the allegorical. This isn’t a sentimental, humanist ode to the love of a good woman – those are fine, but that approach wouldn’t work here. Mary as a human character wouldn’t be enough to lift the burden that Ernst carries or cure his poison.
I’m not mad at all that God’s presence gets embodied by a woman – as mentioned above, Dante did it first (not to mention that the Bible proclaims that both male and female were made in God’s image). Anyway, transcendence is the moment where language fundamentally falls short and can only take pot shots in metaphor. When the Bible talks about God’s love it too can only use pictures. A pursuing groom, a mother hen, a careful shepherd. Beauty too can speak to us of God, finding its meaning and fullness in pointing beyond itself. Mary’s visage points to something more than Mary herself can ever be.
To experience that love is another thing – is to take the metaphors on their word, to believe beauty, and to find the part of us where God is calling, is reaching out in Love, and to respond in kind. That the film even suggests that such a thing is possible is beyond bold. I don’t know that Schrader believes it’s even probable, but at least it’s possible.
Though the title of this piece might have suggested it, this isn’t where I shift into evangelical propaganda. Rather, what I see in the history of church renewal movements over the millennia is the attempt to root social action, popular communalism, and religious liturgy – the stuff of religious concern – in the transcendent reality of God’s presence and power. To burn with the fire of the love of God. I am reminded of Catholic saints, Orthodox pilgrims, Moravians, John Wesley’s movement in England, Pentecostals, Charismatics and – yes – Evangelicals. Not to mention the young church portrayed in the Bible. I’m sure there are many others. The Reformed of the title carries with it too often an idea of God as a force of inevitability and sovereignty that is fundamentally unknowable to His puny human actors; there are of course plenty of exceptions to this rule, but Ernst is not one of them. The line he says with greatest conviction is “Who can know the mind of God?” The note of hope the film ends on is that, just maybe, we will find that God really is the one we are looking for, that God’s inscrutability will not be the final impediment to our interrelation, and that those who seek God will be found.