A gnawing sense of tension slowly ramps up throughout the entirety of “First Reformed”, until the last twenty minutes became unbearable in their oppressive dread. Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Toller has lost his son, his sense of purpose, the love of self needed to maintain relationships, the institutions of the world have failed him, and his interaction with an environmentalist couple brings him to feeling the world will soon be lost as well. Presiding over a historical church functioning more as tourist oddity than anything else, he pains over the conflict between its history – where the church took a firm stance on politics and what was right, and helped and sheltered slaves on the underground railroad – and its present, where extensive underwriting by a fossil fuel corporation sees the church do nought but back the increasingly treacherous status quo.
The 4:3 aspect ratio (1.375:1 really) compresses the characters into the frame, emphasising the claustrophobic, oppressive atmosphere of the film, while also emphasising the verticality of the body, keeping nuances of the cast’s performances in focus. Apart from a slow dolly shot to open the film, the film all takes place in static tripod shots apart from the very rare marked scene where the camera moves. Everything is constrained, unyielding, nary a pan or tilt to be had. This settled, unchanging status quo is reflected in the narrative, where the protagonist pains over the madness of a world that keeps on trucking like it’s not descending into very tangible ruin. The stillness of the cinematic style becomes unbearable in the ending, where the protagonist’s anguish, and the stakes of the story, have risen so high that any kind of release is needed.
That release comes in the form of an ending that pushes the film’s questions – how do we grapple with what we’ve done to the world? Do we deserve forgiveness still? What do we do in the face of the unchanging status quo actively making things worse still? Do we despair or hope? Can we do both? Should we? – back onto the viewer. Perhaps in some ways it’s cheap to dodge any definitive statement and put the onus back onto the audience. Perhaps it’s more reflective of the tension and unknowability we live with, and the disappointment with not receiving a direct call-to-action is just further reflection of the times. If anything perhaps it’s a call to self-examine suicidal and martyr-driven impulses, to see the equivalence between self-destruction of the body and what we’ve wrought upon the world and to push that somewhere other than further self-destruction.
What would we do if we encountered grace? Embrace it entirely? Recognise how fleeting it is, and continue bleeding out into despair even after the glory of the moment? Dismiss it, wash it away entirely, blow it away for the ugliness of the world and the self? Is it righteous to channel our self-hate into righteous cause? Does the unrelenting stickiness of evil forgive casualties in the pursuit of its purification? Is it weakness to think it doesn’t? Where is the line between humanistic understanding of the realities of the world, and the self-flagellation that so often results from awareness of them? The film probes more than it answers, especially with essentially all the stakes, questions, and dramas of the film are set out in the first thirty minutes of its two hours, as the droning dread of the Lustmord soundtrack amps up and up towards the painful finale.
The meaning the film offers in one reading of the ending is troublesome to a degree for where it draws a line between a woman’s youthful fertility and an older woman’s steadfast love…there’s no denying the specific characterisation of the former, but there feels an awkwardly relevant reflection of scripture in equating a woman’s worth through the meaning she provides to a man through her vibrancy and fertility.
It’s a brilliant film for all but the last five minutes, where perhaps it’s still brilliant, but it feels more frustrating than anything else. Its lack of answers may reflect the awful tangibility of the very real questions it poses more than anything else. Four and a half shots of whiskey, and some pepto-bismol.