And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. —Romans 8:28
One of Tolkien’s most interesting themes in the Legendarium is the notion that the world becomes less magical with time. In canon, it’s a useful way to explain how the world of Middle Earth gradually faded into the Earth we understand today where technology has replaced magic. With the departure of the Elves and Gandalf to Valinor at the end of the Saga, the world is left to the non-magical creatures to rule. With each generation, the battles get smaller, the stories grow mundane and the world gets harsher and more cynical. Tolkien’s is a very Catholic notion of the world. It’s reflected in the Bible’s structure, starting a series of mythic poems laden with mystical events and magic before gradually transitioning into a more grounded history of Israel and Roman Palestine.
In the latter Bible, sorcery and mysticism faded into the background as the story focused on the miracles of Christ and the effect the disciples had on the Roman Empire. I thought about this notion of fading mysticism while watching Paul Schrader’s newest movie First Reformed. In a strange way, this film represents a logical endpoint for a world Middle Earth would likely degenerate into over the millennia. It would be a small, cramped world where technology overran the planet and made society worse and worse. It would be a society where the future seemed grim and only divine retribution could save the world from man’s own corruption.
Paul Schrader isn’t a huge name outside of film circles. He is, however, a very good filmmaker. For a long time, his greatest claim to fame was as a screenwriter. His early work was in collaboration with Martin Scorsese where he provided the screenplays for Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ. Outside of his collaborating, he became somewhat obscure if a reputable director. His films varied wildly in quality, genre, and style from the stylish, ambitious, and bleak Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters to the meanspirited thriller Hardcore which enjoyed watching a fundamentalist Christian man go through the wringer of digging through the California porn industry in a desperate attempt to find his missing daughter. His works covered eclectic material from the pulpy sexually charged remake of Cat People to the politically charged crime thriller, Blue Collar.
Despite years of experience working in Hollywood and serving as a valuable film historian, his work has never been functionally consistent. With First Reformed, he’s achieved something of a late-in-life masterpiece that offers a radically excellent capstone to end his amazing career on. The movie is an homage in some ways to the great stylistic existential filmmakers who explore themes of religion and nihilism like Robert Bresson and Ingmar Bergman.
The movie merges the themes and impulses that drive Schrader’s entire career: damaged men lapsed faith and political activism are all the driving forces of his artistic soul. Here he finds an interesting middle ground wherein a character not dissimilar from Travis Bickle can run around a quiet, dry, and muted world. The story follows Pastor Toller of the First Reformed Church in Snowbridge, New York. His church is a historical landmark on the verge of its 250th anniversary but sees nearly empty regular church attendance.
On a weekly basis, he sees more tourists in the church’s gift shop than loyal churchgoers in his flock. Toller’s life as a whole is falling apart. His church is subsidized by a local megachurch which itself is funded through illicit means. On top of that, his family has long since fallen apart because of his actions, his body is falling ill, he’s coping by turning to alcoholism, and his faith is falling apart. Because of all of this, his internal crisis of faith is exasperated by the appearance of a young couple facing their own personal crisis. The movie is a depressing spiral of decay and entropy. We see in realtime a man undergoing spiritual, moral, and physical death as he fails to grasp the quiet horrors of the world. As such, it’s one of the most compelling films about faith in years.
Most of the discussion about the film has covered the movie’s themes about climate change. This isn’t shocking considering the issue has been in the news a lot lately. In regards to the movie, there’s not a shared consensus on what that’s supposed to mean thematically. I’ve seen some critics who state in earnest that the movie is about the madness watching the world decay around you can bring you to while I’ve seen other people claim it’s a movie about how the death of religious meaning in modern life can ensnare people into radical philosophies. Truth be told, I’m not even sure Paul Schrader has an answer to the full meaning of the movie. You get the sense in his interviews that he’s more interested in making people think and letting them draw their own conclusions while taking all the ideas of the film at face value. That’s the value of a deep and complex film. Sometimes you can hit it from multiple directions and find immense insight even when the film is specifically about a singular topic.
My interpretation of the film is that First Reformed is about the death of all things. We see a depiction of a world in continuous decay. Faith, family, hope, love, sanity, the environment, and even the human body itself are dying. It recalls the classic line about how a man goes bankrupt from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: “Gradually and then suddenly.” This is Toller’s world in gradual decline right before things get suddenly worse. There’s nothing in this world that isn’t slowly fading to oblivion. The colors are muted to the point where the green grass seems dull and dead. Even the camera is static, never moving and occasionally panning coldly from left to right or back.
The only exception to this death comes in the form of the angelic young woman Mary (Amanda Siegfried), a pregnant church goer trying to help her nihilist husband Michael find some peace from his depression and fear for the future. She is the only character with hope for the future. She shares the concerns of her husband but isn’t afraid to bring a child into a world her husband fears will be destroyed by climate change, martial law, and social unrest. Her presence is so great that it offers the only respite from the constant air of bleakness and death the rest of the film depicts. In communing with her, Toller begins to find relief from his crises and formulates his act of vengeance upon the world. His emotional and spiritual decline lies at the heart of the movie.
First Reformed is vague about the underlying metaphysical nature of Toller’s torment. In some ways, the story suggests that his problems are of his own making. It’s possible his stomach cancer is a side effect of his alcoholism. I’m not sure there’s a better visual metaphor for self-destruction than the scene of him mixing alcohol with Pepto Bismal. The body may be dying a slow cancerous death but it’s worth damaging it further to numb it as long as the stomach pains don’t hurt as much.
Spoilers for First Reformed’s Ending Beyond this Point
The film builds Toller’s internal struggle of faith and radicalization to the film’s famous ending. The finale is tense, painful, and may not actually be happening within the universe of the story. By this point, Toller’s mind has reached a fever pitch of madness and delusion. He wraps his body in barbed wire as though he was reenacting his own personal crucifixion, plans to blow himself up, and take half the corrupt government and church with him
However, he decides not to when he realizes Mary is in attendance. Merely a moment from suicide, he sees Mary enter the room (which he previously locked himself in) and embraces her as the service starts in the background before the film cuts to black. The ending is ambiguous but the point seems clear. There’s no catharsis to be had past this moment. Even if he didn’t die right there in the room, his act of martyrdom wouldn’t fix anything or sooth his soul. For all intents and purposes, he dies in a feverish delusion.
At a time when many of the most interesting filmmakers alive are crafting deep and complex films about faith like Silence, Hacksaw Ridge, A Serious Man, and mother!, First Reformed sets itself apart with its moral ambiguity. The movie is difficult but stares into the heart of faith and modernity and doesn’t give you straight answers. There’s a reason people aren’t walking away with the same conclusions about the film’s meaning. As Christians, there is a lot we can take away from Paul Schrader’s meditation on religion. Schrader has said in interviews that he considers this work is about faith more than anything else. As a lapsed Calvinist, his perspective on faith is very different from an active Christian’s. He wasn’t even allowed to go to the cinema until he left home. There is yet a reluctance to abandon faith in its entirety. Despair is the product of hopeful souls losing faith and First Reformed wallows in despair. What can we learn about our culture to improve it?
Let’s consider the state of the modern world. Regardless of your opinion on contentious issues, the world we’re living in now isn’t dissimilar to the one depicted in First Reformed. People are atomized and cling to radical political ideologies in vain hope of outlasting the hostility and social bifurcation that politics continues to reign. In this day and age, the full emotions of the internet are blasted constantly on websites like Twitter and where people’s worst instincts run rampant. Young people are more lost now than ever. Our generation is like Michael, depressed young people with little hope who cling to violent resolve as the only solution for the future they have little hope for.
In this moment of utter spiritual crisis, the church is largely absent from public life. Christianity hasn’t been popular since the forces of institutional corruption within the church (such as Catholic abuse coverups) and modern life’s push for acceptance of lifestyles frowned upon within the church made religion seem antiquated for an entire generation. Since then the absence of religion in public life is felt hard as society gradually loses the delicate threads that unite people.
The church’s general solution to its unpopularity has merely been to attempt to sanitize the church with self-help philosophy, megachurches, and pop music. Like Toller’s church, we sell more than we preach. I recall a recent viral video from the YouTuber Keemstar that appeared in my Twitter timeline recently wherein he lambasted Christianity as a scam meant to take money away from people. It’s easy to dismiss such claims the ramblings of people who despise the church and view it uncharitably. Yet as Christians, can we deny that churches have run rampant with charlatanism and profiteering?
One of the most interesting recent studies to come out in the past few years has been the ones where young people state their preference for older traditional services over the rise of contemporary Christian churches. In a moment when authenticity and truth are craved more than ever, our churches have bowed down and become more worldly. As G.K. Chesterton once said, “Christianity is always out of fashion because it is always sane; and all fashions are mild insanities.” First Reformed confronts the crisis of modernity from a mournful secular perspective. It speaks to the air of despair that has consumed the world as our spiritual and political problems accumulate. Our faith offers a path away from despair if we can build it. If we don’t, the world will continue to fall in the same way Michael and Toller did, self-destruction and radicalization.