With good reason, some filmmakers bristle at the idea that their art facilitates escapism, feeling instead that it serves a different, more vital function in times of unrest. Andrei Tarkovsky, in his book “Sculpting In Time,” describes art as something not created simply to communicate or exemplify ideas, but that instead “The aim of art is to prepare someone for death, to plow and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.” This seems to be the opposite of escape: film, in many instances, helps us turn inward and helps us to understand ourselves.
Few filmmakers understand Tarkovsky’s concept better than Paul Schrader, whose filmography consists of character studies of men facing deep internal struggles. As the final act of Schrader’s 2017 film First Reformed draws to a close, Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), a pastor facing mounting crises, makes a sudden, sharp claim of desperation: “Somebody has to do something!”
His words are all too familiar. To exist in the 21st century is to feel the vague, dreadful sense that you’re running out of time, and for Toller, the clock is ticking. The world will soon be underwater. Congress denies the realities of climate change. Churches work with oil factories if it means they’ll get financing. Toller grapples with the recent death of his son in Iraq, worsening alcoholism, and the recent discovery of stomach cancer. First Reformed concerns itself with depictions of modern America’s darkest sides – of existence in general. All around him, Toller sees failure: by leaders, institutions, and his own body.
His plea for action is his response to a lecture from Joel Jeffers (Cedric Kyles), owner of both Abundant Life megachurch and First Reformed, the small church and tourist destination where Toller serves as pastor. (The latter was once a stop on the Underground Railroad.) Jeffers calls Toller in to address the latter’s preoccupation with climate change as well as his indignant behavior toward Ed Balq (Michael Gaston), one of Abundant Life’s key financiers and the owner of a nearby factory. Jeffers advises Toller that by trying to guide the Church’s stance on pollution, he is acting with arrogance, attempting to know God’s will. Jeffers even hints that destruction and catastrophe may be part of God’s grand plan.
An important point to consider is that our emotional investment in a story often relies on the protagonist. Can we understand this character’s point of view? Can their conflict keep us engaged? Schrader uses the philosophical dread associated with climate change and with our leaders’ passivity in addressing it. It’s a distinctly modern issue, one that helps First Reformed build a sympathetic and unique portrait of its troubled main character.
Additionally, First Reformed is shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio. It’s an ornate compositional choice that also gives us the sense that we’re trapped with these characters, maybe even trapped inside Toller’s own mind. When First Reformed begins, Toller has started an “experiment,” keeping a daily journal of his thoughts for an entire year. At the end of the year, he’ll destroy the journal. As Toller writes, we hear his most personal thoughts in voiceover. The journal scenes often occur in a dark room, where a lone candle illuminates Toller’s stern, exhausted face, the borders of the frame closing in. At times, his narration interjects into other scenes, cutting through silence and serving as a reminder of the film’s perspective.
In one of the first scenes, Mary (Amanda Seyfried) approaches Toller after church. She is worried about her husband, Michael (Phillip Ettinger), and would like Toller to speak with him. Michael, a radical environmentalist, informs Toller that because climate change will soon render Earth uninhabitable, he doesn’t want Mary to follow through with her pregnancy – Michael cannot justify bringing life into a dying world. He and Toller first meet in Michael’s living room, in a 12-minute, full-on claustrophobic scene where Michael tries desperately to get Toller to understand. Despite this, Toller at first doesn’t grasp the depths of Michael’s anguish. This changes when Mary reveals that she’s discovered a suicide vest among Michael’s things. She and Toller confiscate it, although it turns out to be too late – soon after, Toller discovers Michael dead of a self-inflicted gunshot in a local park.
Shaken, Toller begins questioning his faith and the church’s role in his community. He decides to honor Michael’s last will and testament by holding his funeral service at a toxic waste dump. This frustrates Balq, who sees the action as political. Toller, by contrast, sees the acknowledgment of climate pollution as an act of stewardship: the belief that humans are responsible for the world, that we were put here to take care of it. He continues to meet with and counsel Mary, forging a deeper connection with her.
The argument with Balq is what leads Jeffers to admonish Toller. He advises him to drop the whole thing, urging passivity, believing that doing nothing means taking the high road. Toller sees this thinking as an arrogant delusion – passivity justified by personal greed. In the world of modern organized religion, this logic is much too common. Jeffers is, in fact, using religion as an excuse to instruct Toller to stop caring, to do nothing. To give up.
This is Toller’s breaking point. Something inside him snaps. Faith, stewardship, wisdom: suddenly, none of it matters anymore. Concepts are empty; action is necessary now.
Ultimately, Toller is driven to violence the same way Michael was. When they first met, Toller saw Michael as a misguided individual undergoing a deep struggle, and he tried to help him. After Michael’s death, Toller has become more like him. Burying his inner turmoil, ignoring his failing health, he instead devotes his time to the study of Micheal’s research on Balq Industries and the depth of the damage they’ve done to the planet. He dons Michael’s weaponized vest before speaking at First Reformed’s anniversary service, where Balq will be in attendance.
As uncomfortable as Toller’s action may make us, it’s a nonetheless logical conclusion to the desperation he faces. Schrader’s depiction is a powerful reflection of human behavior, of depths to which we can fall when we’re met with constant despair. It’s what we might do when we think we’ve achieved some kind of deep understanding, isolate ourselves, and ignore everything else. As Toller stares into his reflection, so do we.
The night before the anniversary service, Toller offers Mary a vague warning that she should not come the next day. When he sees her in the congregation despite his pleas, Toller abandons his plan, choosing instead to wrap himself in barbed wire and preparing to kill himself by drinking drain cleaner. Mary interrupts him; they embrace and kiss. And First Reformed ends.
Each frame of this film is still, evenly-composed, and symmetrical. The dialogue is natural, familiar, and without pretense; Hawke, Ettinger, and Seyfried deliver their lines with restrained emotion, though their faces tell us they’re ready to burst at any moment. The themes Schrader deals with are extremely heavy. Nonetheless, First Reformed‘s concise, muted storytelling weaves a tapestry that never gets tangled – at least, not until the film’s conclusion. There, the camera spins around Toller and Mary, our disorientation seemingly intentional.
In their first conversation, Michael tells Toller the key to wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our minds. Even if the present moment is painful, there is no way to know the future. The only option is to keep going.
Revisiting the scene shows us how unmoored Toller has become by the film’s end. We see now that this is not clarity he has reached, although it is perhaps a more profound delusion, spurred on by forces outside of himself. The fact that those forces are tangible makes them all the more frightening. Toller, lost, has given himself over to despair.
But Mary intervenes. And instead of drinking the drain cleaner, Toller reaches out for her. Their connection is the final image before First Reformed‘s credits roll. Toller becomes not a murderer, but something much more complicated. Reaching out to another person, even after experiencing the lowest, most sinister depths of loneliness, begs the question: What would have happened if Mary hadn’t come?
Too often, we ignore meaningful work because of the way discourse evolves. Ask people about First Reformed and you’re likely to hear about its bleak tone and strange narrative, or the sudden tonal shift of its ending. It’s problematic when these exchanges merely imply that some things are too sad or abstract to face, when reality is often just as exhausting. That it’s better to ignore fictional portrayals of dark corners, or that fiction should be a comfort rather than a reminder. Maybe we’ve been tricked. The belief that people only want cheerful films to watch in times of struggle is an idea long reinforced by Hollywood. They’re not in the business of making movies that address impossible stakes. It’s understandable.
Schrader, by contrast, opts for smaller budgets and independence. He places his protagonists in a recognizably bleak version of our own world, one full of the same existential crises we deal with daily. Not every film needs us to stare death and destruction right in the face, but First Reformed is a powerful example of the kind of art that encourages us to look. Five years after its release, as the clock continues to tick, the film’s subject matter has only become more timely.
And though First Reformed is dark, it’s not devoid of hope. The film is about a man fighting against loneliness and isolation and our seeming inability to make a difference in a world dictated by political and bureaucratic gridlock. Schrader reminds us that connection is the way out – the answer lies in other people. Isolation, in these times, is deadly.