By Amber Noel
This blog post contains descriptions of disturbing images.
I’ve now seen the movie First Reformed two times. At both viewings, when it cut to black and the credits rolled, the audience began to complain: What was that? That’s it?! Ugh! My favorite: 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes means “really bad,” right?
Critics are already hailing this movie as director Paul Schrader’s best. And I say, bring on the art film! Yasujirô Ozu, Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson — Schrader’s inspirations — are sublime. But art films can also be boring and frustrating. They take discipline to watch, as well as discernment. When do you put yourself through a grueling film, for example, and when should you just relax and turn it off?
My guess is that no one prepared my annoyed companions to watch this movie, so I don’t blame them for complaining. Most Friday nights, I want to watch Kindergarten Cop, not The Passion of Joan of Arc.
But First Reformed will become an important movie. It’s about the American church, clergy, environmentalism, capitalism, and politics, and it engages Christian spirituality with a ferocity, sincerity, and incisiveness rare for Hollywood. Christians can certainly do it the courtesy of listening. First Reformed is a testimony that sometimes movies ask something of us. We may owe Schrader a debt of thanks. And to get anything out of the experience, we have to do some work.
This film moves slowly. It’s very dark, and grows darker. It’s about a washed-up Dutch Reformed pastor, the Rev. Ernst Toller (played pitch-perfectly by Ethan Hawke), who is in an agonizing existential crisis. Early in the film he meets Michael, a young, volatile environmentalist, and his wife, Mary. As their relationship unfolds, the spiritual version of a chemical reaction occurs. It sends Toller down a private rabbit hole of torment about the church’s complicity in climate change. While outwardly he still functions as the pastor of his tiny historical church (jokingly called the museum by the megachurch minister in town, the Rev. Joel Jeffers, played by Cedric the Entertainer), inwardly his life is whittling down to a sharp and dangerous point.
There’s a lot of silence. The camera pauses too long. The screen ratio is squared off, with no periphery, framing Toller’s life in the echoing old parsonage: devoid of comforts, intensely ascetic, suffocating. To increase the effect, many shots focus on Toller’s bodily functions: urinating blood, vomiting, shaving, sopping his daily bread in liquor. His private world is both wise and pained, contemplative and morbid. It’s unnerving. And apart from three key shots, the camera doesn’t move.
You’re stuck. You’re forced to pay close attention. It is intense, rich, spiritual, and a bit sickening.
(If you haven’t seen First Reformed yet, you might want to skip the rest of this post. But for the initiated or the curious, here are some helpful things to know. Think of them as digestive aids.)
There’s a rich history of Transcendental cinema behind this film. Schrader wrote a book on the topic in the 1970s, but held off making a film in this style until now. (Interviews leave the impression that he wasn’t ready until now.) It helps to know that First Reformed riffs off Diary of a Country Priest (1951) and Ordet (1955), films that deeply influenced Schrader and are spiritual, not only in exploring spiritual themes, but in attempting to provoke a spiritual experience or crisis in the viewer.
They do this by a via negativa: intentional immersion in unresolved tension, silence, emotional withholding, and careful degrees of boredom. These are the tools of Christian ascetic practice. The film uses stillness, minimal staging, motionless cameras, and other forms of “emptiness” to make viewers encounter themselves as viewers. The movie wants you to pay attention to what’s happening in yourself as the story unfolds. Where does your mind wander? When are emotions roused? When are you most uncomfortable? Part of the point is that if you run from these questions in film, it may be likely you run from them in life. Or you decide the “emptiness” is unhealthy or inappropriate for you, in which case, part of sanctification is learning to turn away from being manipulated. Watching a movie and being sanctified in prayer are not equivocal, but the transcendental style insists they can have a relationship.
Here’s an example. When you see this movie, listen to what happens to snack noises. At my viewings, the opening credits roll to a cheerful (somewhat greedy) chorus of candy wrappers and popcorn boxes. After only a few minutes in, you could hear a pin drop. In the stark presence of the suffering Toller, loud snacking — the sounds of our self-indulgence — became embarrassing.
The danger with this sort of film is that, like, Toller, you might find the truth, and then fall down the well in an asceticism gone wrong. That’s when a good Abba is supposed to tell the monk to leave the hermitage and rejoin the monastery. But Toller is a classic American pastor: He is leading from spiritual solitude. He has no Abba by his side, human or divine, to speak and guide. And he is clearly losing it. His descent is gut-wrenching, even, as an increasingly creepy soundtrack implies, demonic. As Jeffers tells Toller, “You’re always in the garden. Even Jesus wasn’t always in the garden.”
Toller is changed from extreme to extreme. When a planned church bombing fails him, he turns to self-flagellation with intent to die, afflicting himself with the scourges of the planet: barbed wire wrapped around his chest, Drano poured into a highball glass. It’s gruesome, and both times I’ve seen this movie, I’ve looked away from the screen. I broke my gaze. I can’t do it.
And yet Toller’s not entirely wrong. His sorrow for creation is legitimate. In the midst of a breakdown, Toller finds new moral courage, and his sufferings take on honest, vulnerable, and vicarious dimensions. His care for Mary after Michael’s death is truly tender. Wrapped up in all the horror, there is still the terrible wisdom of the cross. You might think of Kierkegaard, or Hawthorne’s Arthur Dimmesdale, without hope and on steroids. There is something deeply 19th century and sharply 21st century about this spiritual gnarl.
Though the movie is foremost about Toller’s personal breakdown, it would help to come to this movie prepared to see today’s American church and its spiritual crisis in an unflattering allegorical light. Could it be that Toller is the walking, talking, painful to the touch, politico-religious logjam we find ourselves in? I have not been able to find this acknowledged in an interview with Schrader, but I wonder whether Toller is what happens when we finally admit warfare against principalities is real, and then, unhealed of nihilistic despair, fling ourselves into the fray, misperceiving the enemy. No wonder we don’t want to watch it. It’s a train wreck.
Finally, it might help to do a little reading before your viewing. The script and staging are thickly populated by Kierkegaard, Thomas Merton, Julian of Norwich, the Bible, and theology in general. Every book on a clerical desk appears to indicate something. Scripture passages are intentionally misquoted, hymns warped. There are a few small inside jokes, too (rare chances for levity).
My prediction is that this movie will be loved by critics, and flop at the box office. It’s a hard movie and intentionally difficult. Most people will not have anyone there to prepare them to watch it. But it is a truly great film, articulate and accurate about our social and political moment.
Go see it. Then, if you are moved or intrigued, find out more about it, go see it again, and become an ambassador to help other people watch it, too.
But don’t go see First Reformed for fun. If you find you have the stomach for it, leverage it for discipleship — yours, or someone else’s. This film is intentional and important, but requires patience and a willingness to see what you’d rather not.
Amber Noel (MDiv, Duke) provides consultation and event support for the Living Church Foundation. She is also a teacher, writer, and dinner party-thrower, and lives in Dallas, Texas. She keeps a non-negotiable line in her budget for movies.