[The following discussion is, of necessity, chock-full of spoilers, so be advised.]
The film “First Reformed” is getting serious attention as a serious film from a serious filmmaker, Paul Schrader. Praised by the chief film critic in our newspaper of record, The New York Times, the filmmaker is also subject of a Times interview, in which the paper calls the film “one of the most talked-about movies of the spring.”
Respectfully, I must dissent. “First Reformed” at first appears to be a serious look at contemporary ills, told from the point of view of the anguished pastor of a dying church in upstate New York who has lost his faith. But in its violent climax — the pastor suddenly turns eco-terrorist — the film commits both theological and secular heresy.
Like the proverbial lamb, I was drawn in by the Times’ praise of the film as “an epiphany” and its mention of the film’s inspiration, “Diary of a Country Priest,” the meditative classic by the eminent French filmmaker Robert Bresson. Like many who were raised in the church but have wandered away but who still believe, and like millions of other pilgrims searching for footing in these wildly tumultuous times, I am keen for works of art that show well-meaning people contending meaningfully.
So I was stunned when Schrader’s cleric throws in the moral towel and straps on a suicide vest, targeting his own church. Seriously? The Times review was, curiously, silent on this violent turn, sticking to a purely aesthetic critique. Whereas the priest in the Bresson film works his sickly body to death ministering to a flock that in their pettiness is shown not worthy of the priest’s sacrifice, in this film it is a suffering humanity who merits succor, while it is the cleric who sins.
We are introduced to the pastor, Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), as he ministers to a dwindling flock at First Reformed. His church, austere in appearance as well as teaching, has been subsumed by and serves as a kind of gift shop and tour stop to an evangelical mega-church, Abundant Life. (Toller’s church, established in 1767, was a stop in the Underground Railroad). At midlife Toller bears the scars of divorce and the death of an only son in the war in Iraq. Like Bresson’s priest, Toller keeps a diary, which he narrates; early on he announces he plans to keep the diary for one year, apparently believing that the bodily pain he’s experiencing means he won’t live long.
Toller’s turn into violence is abrupt and unconvincing, taken up after counseling a pregnant parishioner’s eco-terrorist husband, who later, in anguish over bringing a child into a ruined world, commits suicide. To save the wife any bother with the police, Toller offers to hide the husband’s suicide jacket and explosives — which to the veteran moviegoer is blatant signal those items will figure later in the action. Taking on the late husband’s mantra about mankind’s environmental devastation — “Can God forgive us?” — Toller at first takes on the man’s target, a chemical plant, but then shifts his aim, unbelievably, to his own church: The chemical plant’s CEO, a generous benefactor to Abundant Life, will be present in First Reformed when it celebrates, in a public reconsecration, its 250 years of existence.
Other blatant signals of Toller’s imminent descent, dropped in to cue the climax: He suddenly turns on the director of the church choir, with whom he had an affair, screaming “I despise you,” meanwhile commanding the eco-terrorist’s wife, Mary, for whom he now has feelings, not to come to the reconsecration ceremony.
I confess when Toller strapped on the suicide vest, I took a hike. So powerful is the will in me to life (and not just because I am living with cancer) and so powerful is my resistance to anything death-loving, which marks much dystopian fare of today, that I had to move. But while another woman walking out with me left the theater, I lingered. I peeked in to see if Toller would rethink his homicidal plan, give in to his better angels — hear God? — but no, now he was scourging his flesh with barbed wire. I closed the door again, feeling nauseated, then caught the end: Mary came looking for him, after which, fade-out. Love is triumphant, I guess.
If this is a “serious” portrayal of humanity’s struggle with wrestling our demons and quelling the red-hot anger now freely vented on all sides (and stoked by our President), then Lord help us. But then, Schrader is not breaking new ground. The Western canon of drama and film is replete with characters tragically succumbing to dark forces. What we desperately need are stories of characters overriding those forces, their demons. I was sorry Schrader defaulted to the Hollywood cliché of blow-it-all-up violence.
I wonder if Schrader disdains a more pacific outcome as “sentimental.” As Peter Rainier, film critic of The Christian Science Monitor, notes: “Many of [Schrader’s] signature films, as either a screenwriter or writer-director (most conspicuously ‘Taxi Driver,’ ‘Raging Bull,’ and ‘The Last Temptation of Christ,’ all directed by Martin Scorsese), involve the agonies of faith and redemption, often culminating in an act of violence that is meant to be as spiritually cleansing as it is shocking.” It must be said: Violence meant to be “spiritually cleansing” has got to be the worst heresy.
I realize filmmakers generally reject responsibility for any violence their work may spark in audiences, but films have become an iconic medium, with enormous cultural influence. In these tinderbox times, a film giving the cultural O.K. to, say, strap on a suicide vest to “solve” a problem is not helpful. (The day I saw this film, a deranged gunman shot up a newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, killing five people.)
What remains compelling is the struggle to retain faith in God, especially for a cleric. I know clerics in real life struggling with how to address moral issues, given the general amorality and the reduced status of religion in American life. The question becomes: How to reconsecrate?
I think of Ingmar Bergman’s film “Winter Light,” not for the cleric whose lost faith has turned him cruel, but for the sexton, the bell-ringer, who shows up despite the dwindling congregation. He claims, in a short scene toward the end (full film here) that, afflicted with a “broken-down body,” he has endured more pain throughout his life than Christ did on the cross. Yet he goes on. And he does not speak of doing violence to others.