Monday, October 1, 2018

First Reformed

By s. Monday, October 1, 2018 , , , , , , ,


When I sat down to watch Paul Schrader's First Reformed I knew absolutely nothing about the plot of this film. I kept guessing what will happen. I thought maybe Mary is going to be attacked by her husband so that she would have a miscarriage and then the priest will avenge her. Then, as Michael kept talking about them having a girl and Mary said she is expecting a boy I thought maybe she is a liar and the vest was actually hers. Then I thought maybe she is manipulating the priest into killing himself. None of those things happened.

The film is remarkable because it pulls off an incredibly difficult thing - showing how a seemingly rational person can - almost - do a completely irrational thing - and then, even more impressively the film doesn't even reap the rewards of that and doesn't go for that ending. The entire film we see Toller live his quiet, small life and we get to know him better with each second we spend with him. We see him as a good, calm man, keeping a diary, collecting his thoughts. A man who has had a tragedy in his life. A man who feels responsible for the death of his son. Someone sad, lonely, who just goes through the motions, doing his job and not expecting anything good or happy from his life.

Then as he meets Michael, he is starting to have trouble helping him and helping himself, because while Toller seems very sure of his faith (a rare thing, whenever we see a priest as a protagonist there's usually a crisis of faith) but he doesn't really know what his faith means in ever changing and progressively more destroyed world. Toller shares Michael's and Mary's concerns about the state of environment and cannot figure out what God's plan is. Will God forgive people for destroying his creation? Or will there be nothing to forgive because the Earth was supposed to be destroyed?
So we spend every moment of the film with Toller and we see him changing from a kind man, eager to help the others to someone who is ready to blow himself up in front of people (the vest was a suicide vest so it seems that the explosion wouldn't really hurt other people, physically). As the events escalate - as Michael takes his own life, as Toller's body starts failing even more so than before and as he starts seeing how serious the climate change really is - he decides to actually go ahead with it.

Then there's Ethan Hawke's work which only elevates the writing - there's one scene in which Toller furiously lashes out at Esther, his friend and a woman he slept with once, who was just trying to be kind to him. His anger is completely disproportional to her prying and he seems to be practically disgusted with her, finding her and her concerns pathetic. This is such an explosion of his own self loathing - he finds himself practically worthless so Esther's concerns about him are worthless too, as opposed to the concerns of Mary and Micheal - the people who saw the bigger picture, saw beyond the individuals.

Then there was a scene with him eating sushi in restaurant and commenting on "life's simple pleasures" where I became convinced he was going to blow himself up. If there is one thing the film was not subtle about, at all, it was what an asshole the main guy in the corporation was. That sushi scene was directed in such a manner I thought Hawke was gonna pull a machine gun from under his habit and just end them there. But none of this was as distracting as Amanda Seyfriend's work. It's not really that she is bad, it's just that her acting suggested that there is more to her character, something truly sinister she is hiding.
But even with all of that, you just cannot see the ending coming. Schrader's goal was to make the end ambiguous. I don't like ambiguous, so here we are with me trying to work out what exactly happened. Apparently Schrader kept changing things around until he got pretty much 50/50 split among test screening audiences on whether or not what they saw in the ending was real. I'm surprised because for me the ending clearly leans towards one answer more than the other.

I think the key to understanding it is the relationship between Toller and Mary.

There's never anything sexual about them. It's just Toller trying to help her in any way he can. There's the most controversial scene of the movie between them, with Mary being distraught and worried and Toller calming her down - per her request, like her husband did, with her laying on top of him and the two listening to each other breathe. During the scene we suddenly break from very realistic approach the film was taking so far as we see Toller and Mary beginning to float above the floor.
First Toller and Mary float over the beautiful sights of nature and then we see the destruction, the trash and the pollution. I found the scene to be symbolic of Toller slowly detaching himself from being someone who wants to function in the world and opening himself to the idea of sacrificing himself for an idea and for the greater good. And what amplified it was that he was sharing that moment with Mary, someone he was helping, someone who wanted nothing from him and someone who was making him happy. And I think this scene was necessary - we needed two breaks from reality. Just one in the ending would make it even more bizarre for the audience.

I don't believe what we are seeing is 'traditional' happy ending in Hollywood meaning of the word. I don't think they really kissed and lived happily ever after. Toller sees Mary and decides not to go through with his plan not to give her a shock of seeing this and probably feel somewhat responsible considering she is the reason he had the vest. And most importantly he sees that even though he asked her not to come she came anyways, because she cares about him this much. Toller kept rejecting love - the concept that God can forgive people even though they keep destroying what was given to them, the concern from others - and he was about to hurt Mary. Ashamed, all that was left was his hurt and he punished himself for what he considered doing, hence the barb wire.

We saw Jeffers trying to get into the room Toller is in and fail. Why have a moment like that if not to suggest there was no way to enter the room? And why the abrupt cut to black in the end? I think in the end, as he drinks the poison and he is in pain, Toller is going insane from it and he desperately needs to feel some happiness. I imagine when you know that this is it you feel fear and you feel desperate. Desperate to not be afraid. So his mind immediately goes to the one person who he let in his heart recently - Mary, who appears in the doorway and uncharacteristically calls him by his name. And they kiss - even though there was no sexual feelings between them prior to this moment - they kiss because he has seconds to live and how else can you feel intense closeness and connection to another human being in such a short time.
First Reformed is not an easy film. It's sad and it's heartbreaking but it's also riveting from start to finish. It's the only movie I saw this year that I thought of for weeks after watching it. It's also really unique - the way it is shot and the way the story progresses is so refreshing and surprising but also feels very old school, like it was a movie that was made years ago. The film puts its flawed protagonist at the center and it makes us observe his choices. It never judges him and it leaves the judgement to the audience.

First Reformed (USA, 2017, 113 min)
Plot: A priest of a small congregation in upstate New York grapples with mounting despair brought on by tragedy, worldly concerns and a tormented past.
Director: Paul Schrader
Writer: Paul Schrader
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer


  1. never heard a word of it, thanks for digging up this treasure - just flew over your review not to spoil too much!

  2. Finally saw and reviewed this recently and I'm all in with you. I've seen it twice now and it still has quite the sting. If Hawke isn't nominated for an Oscar that category will be a joke. Talk about showing a broad range.

    1. The one thing he has against him is the early release date, this was in USA in what? Spring? But he is really amazing

  3. Great review! I wish I had liked this film more, I really enjoyed it until that ending. Hawke is fantastic though, and he'll probably be ignored during Oscar season.

    1. Thank you! Well, who knows, stranger things have happened and he is continuously in the news lately giving interviews for some reason :)

  4. Where can I watch this? I had to skim your review to avoid spoilers, but I've been hearing a lot about this. Love me some Ethan Hawke <3

    1. I think it's already released on home media in USA? You definitely need to see it if you like Hawke!

  5. Just saw this the other day and HOLY CRAP I was blown away. The fist half is really slow and maybe too austere for its own good, but then the hangman's noose just keeps on tightening until that final sequence, which is just ruthless.

    I don't know how I feel about the ending... I'm inclined to agree with you except that doesn't he drop the glass with the poison before he drinks it, and it shatters? Although with all the barbed wire he very easily could be extremely delusional by that point.

    Anyway, Hawke was so fantastic that the ending didn't bother me nearly as much as it might have otherwise. Great write-up!

    1. Yeah he does but I think at that point we are in fantasy. He drops it after seeing Mary - which I think wasn't reality of what was going on.

  6. I haven't seen First Reformed yet. I'll read your review in full when I've watched. I'm usually interested in the projects Ethan Hawke is in. Seems to be a film rich in symbolism and which makes you think.

  7. Yes yes yes yes!!! Thank you again for bringing this to my attention. I loved loved it. Ethan Hawke.... easily his best performance. Amazing stuff, and a great breakdown. Your analysis of films is really awesome sati, pretty sure I've said that before. I need to watch Mandy soon so I can then read your review of that

  8. This is a great review. I'm so happy that you liked this film so much, and I really appreciated reading your interpretation of the ending. I agree, this isn't an easy film, but it is absolutely riveting throughout.