First Reformed / Directed by Paul Schrader
It begins with a powder white church, so worthy it seems that we must approach it slowly, so big that we must look up at it. As the camera comes up to the church, we ascend, rising alongside the steeple— towards the heavens! Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Toller embodies this alongside us, doing exactly what the camera does in the first minute of the film over the course of the next 110. Writer/director Paul Schrader and the rest of the team bring us closer to Toller and his church than we would like to be to anything, stripping away all worth and value from this once magnificent thing.
First Reformed argues that once you get near enough to something so irreversibly damaged, something that was so magnificent from a distance, you have no choice but to turn back or ascend.
Reverend Toller starts out the film so worthless-feeling that he is incapable of noticing the obvious admiration that everyone around has for him. I shall not say how he ends the film. Former lover Esther and employer Pastor Jeffers, who work at the Megachurch down the road, the daily visitors of the historical church’s Souvenir Shop (don’t call it a museum), the eight people who attend mass on a regular basis… Toller lives his private life as if every single good thought his community has about him morphs itself into a malignant mole in his psyche. The damage is understandable: his wife left almost a year ago after their son died in the Iraq War, upholding a Toller-family tradition of service. Even if we were not told this outright, we might imagine it. Hawke’s vibrating stillness in every frame, the way wrinkles seem to carve their way onto his face over the course of every conversation he has— they tell us enough. Schrader’s given circumstance only add cherries.
Toller’s pain is admirable in that it is selfless— no one else’s sadness makes him feel better about his own. Not noticing that is part of what makes him suffer so deeply. Confidant Mary, played by Amanda Seyfried, is constantly picking at her fingers, tossing her glance around the room like any outside ears hearing her private thoughts could singlehandedly ruin her reputation. Mary does everything she can not to be that broken and honest, but it is in her very nature to be both of those things. So, she and Toller get close in their selfless agony. As Toller learns from weekly conversations with Mary’s husband Michael, a sharing of suffering (not a confession of them) is what ultimately leads to solace. Mary knows this too; as Toller falls deeper and deeper into emptiness, she begins to meet his every move with revelations of her own.
[He offers her husband conversation, she thinks to offer him tea. He insists he pack up some clutter in the house, she realizes it is not truly like her to take advantage of this help for too long. He commands that she not to come to the late-film consecration ceremony, she knows she must, and must privately.]
A relationship beginning in such a broken place is what fascinates me about this movie. Each of our two protagonists suffers a great deal in order to forgive themselves. In the ending Schrader and his team posit that maybe it was not suffering and selflessness after all that Toller and Mary needed, as the church suggests, but something much simpler: indulgence. Concentrated, boundless, and wrong.
As we get closer and closer to the white church, we see how ugly it can be: chipped paint on the roofing, squirrels lying dead from trying to hop through the barbed wire fence, gravestones toppled over. Throughout the movie, Toller himself grows grosser and grosser until we get so near that we are finally too close to him to pass judgment. The distance has closed completely in a way it can not in his vapid church. Nothing as inherently un-transcendental as his environment could account for what finally frees the Reverend: hands meeting, shoulders pressed up against necks— ascension.