Faith Deformed

By Tim Winterstein

I knew this was going to happen. I knew that if a movie was hyped over and over, time and again, as being an incredible, profound meditation on faith and doubt, that it was unlikely to be anything of the sort. If someone has left or been scarred by Christianity, or an American Fundamentalist version of it; if someone is quick to say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious”; or if someone is fully convinced that what the Church should do is take up the apocalyptic cause du jour, then that person is the perfect candidate to be over-impressed with Paul Schrader’s First Reformed.

I don’t mean that those aren’t authentic responses to a real emotional and intellectual experience of viewing this film. But if you don’t find yourself resonating with one or more of those categories, you might well wonder if you’ve completely missed the point of the film. Is there an additional scene after the credits? Did I miss the profundity? Am I too stupid to understand the basic elements of serious film and thereby misunderstand Schrader’s intentions? The last two might, of course, be true. But the simpler answer is probably more accurate: It’s an attempt to be profound about religion, faith, and doubt, without actually achieving it.

Now I really, really wanted to like First Reformed. I wanted it to be as good as nearly everyone says it is. I wanted it to be on my top-five list for the year. And I’m always up for any and all depictions of clergy in film, whether the characterization misses the point or not. But I think Jeffrey Overstreet’s review comes as close to my experience with the film as any review I’ve read. “I’ve approached writing about the film with some reluctance (because I hate to sound a dissonant note in the concert of praise that my colleagues are singing); some misgivings (I think theologically ambitious films like this one should be seen and discussed, so I don’t want to discourage anyone); and some serious dread (I find it difficult to express why I’m not one of those guaranteeing this a place on my year-end top ten list).”

There are several things I liked about the movie, most of which are in the details rather than in the arc of the story itself. Ethan Hawke’s Ernst Toller lives in a beautiful and mesmerizing, if spare, space. Though the film burns slow and builds in an indirect, circular way to its climax, I was never bored or disinterested. The camera work is both impressive and unsettling. The light and dark contrasts and the slow, narrowing, or expanding shots are powerful.

The difference between the dying First Reformed and the massive Abundant Life next door is drawn sharply and clearly. Though Abundant Life is meant to be the huge, 5,000-seat neighbor to First Reformed, it is intriguing that the viewer only sees employees, rather than worshipers, in the Abundant Life building. From what is shown, there are more congregants at First Reformed than at Abundant Life!

There is criticism, both subtle and overt, in the way Abundant Life is presented, as not only a religious big-box store, but as in bed with corrupt big business. But Rev. Jeffers isn’t Elmer Gantry—at least not yet, or not completely. “Even Jesus wasn’t in the garden all the time” is a line worth considering.

I appreciated Hawke’s Toller in the first third of the film. Although his journal writing is stilted and over-formalized, he is experiencing what every pastor experiences at some time or another. He does well in showing the often awkward interactions that pastors have in trying to help people. The first interaction with Michael is tense and significant. But at other points the false notes of dialogue or delivery (Mary, emotionless: “You must come now”) interfere with the focus on Toller’s breakdown. Darkness, whiskey, and painful (to the audience) introspection seem to be the only three chords Schrader knows how to play. It comes off not so much as a surrealized meditation on faith as a merely superficial description of radicalization.

First Reformed is profundity for the outraged, why-aren’t-you-doing-anything generation. The caricatures of the youth group kid (he might as well be wearing a MAGA hat) and the angry, apathetic, polluting business man mean you know exactly who the bad guys and the good guys are. And then Toller turns into what he decries after his interaction with the youth group: Everything is extreme, nothing in the middle. I want to believe that those lines are intentionally ironic, but in the end I’m not sure.

It has drawn comparisons to that other cinematic depiction of faith-and-doubt struggle, Silence, especially since Schrader worked with Scorsese on Taxi Driver (to which First Reformed is inevitably compared, and from which it draws images and themes). But I had nearly opposite experiences watching Silence and First Reformed.

Perhaps it stems from this: that while both central characters never discover the “answer” in their wrestling with God and man, First Reformed goes boldly where Silence fears to tread. While Toller is conflicted, Schrader’s apocalypticism is straight forward: this world, filled with these sorts of humans, is not going to survive in its present form. Silence, on the other hand, lives up to its title regarding any conclusions to be drawn from its protagonist’s struggle.

It’s almost as if Schrader can’t help himself; he has to preach against the extremism of environmental destruction (which, indeed, is worthy of a sermon). But he, like Toller, has simply replaced one extremism (destroying creation) with another (saving it). Is saving the creation a better extremism than unheedingly destroying it? No doubt. But that’s another way of saying that, for the time being, a given idol is better than some other idol. Unfettered materialism and consumerism is undoubtedly a jealous god. But the god who would destroy people to save the (rest of) creation is just as jealous—and perhaps even more so, because environmentalism is more easily made into an ultimate moral good.

Toller’s emptiness, analogized by the empty rooms of his house and the empty pews of his church, is filled not with God, but with his invention of what God must want. It’s not enough for Toller or anyone else to proof-quote the Scriptures. If the verses are not embedded into the entire Scriptural story, they become (as is abundantly evident in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries) monstrous abuses of God’s name.

Nor is it good enough to work for the good of the creation if no one knows what the purpose or goal of the creation is. And it doesn’t go far enough to say that this is the only world we have without recognizing the other half of the story: that human destruction of everything is precisely what God entered this creation to overturn and reverse. In other words, without the New Creation begun in Christ’s own physical, created-from-Mary flesh and blood, “saving the creation” will become god, rather than paying proper worship to the God who is the Creator.

Toller’s uncertainty, with which the film wants to wrestle, comes not from the Great Unknown of God’s Inscrutable Will, but from his own failure to actually pay attention to God’s action in this very world. If there is no certain word, no certain promise, no certain goal, and no certain restoration of all things, Toller might as well bring judgment on the black-suited bad guys or bring penitential judgment on his own body. Either they or he must pay the price.

The fact that he cannot give any answer to the question “Will God forgive us?” shows how far away he is (how far Schrader is?) from the actual Christian word. I don’t mean, in any way, a facile word about an afterlife (which is where Michael expects Toller to go). Just as Christians cannot ignore the physical, created world for the hope of some anti-physical, uncreated spiritualism, neither can they be unmoved by what we have wrought in the world. Toller is caught on the horns of the Law. It is, in fact, a true word, echoed throughout the prophets, in places like Joel 2:14 or Lamentations 3:29. But if that’s the only word you have, there is—as Toller’s life (and death?) shows—nothing but the darkness and despair mined from the depths of one’s own heart, mirrored in the darkness and despair of human destruction.

I wish First Reformed were a different and better movie, but maybe it couldn’t be. It appears to me to be a film that wants to show you how profound it is, rather than actually being profound. As Overstreet suggests, Calvary is actually moving and profound in the way that First Reformed wants to be.

It’s worth watching for its cinematic value, but the story leaves me wanting to watch the films and directors to which Schrader alludes, rather than this one. (Another great line from Overstreet: “It seems so eager to show us connections with past movies that I almost anticipate we’ll find Toller wearing a tattoo of the Criterion Collection logo on his arm. It seems to announce its own canonical importance by association.”)

In the end, it might be worth the $2 at Redbox, but not the $12 at a theater.