'First Reformed' Promises Unique Insights Into Christianity

It delivers the cliché rich, white, male, American villain and a perverse distortion of jihad.

As soon as I heard about “First Reformed,” I knew I had to see it. Reviewers were calling it a “masterpiece.” Rotten Tomatoes assigns “First Reformed” a 98% rating. Screenwriter and director Paul Schrader has been nominated for or won just about every big award there is. He wrote the scripts for “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “Affliction,” and “The Last Temptation of Christ.“ 

Schrader was raised in the Reformed Church. He attended a Christian high school and college. He thought about becoming a minister. Schrader said he was inspired in the making of “First Reformed” by “Ida,” a 2013 Polish film whose central character is a nun. 

One of the first things the viewer notices about “First Reformed” is the aspect ratio. Most modern films are rectangular in shape, and they stretch from edge to edge of the wide cineplex screen. Films from Hollywood’s Golden Age are more square-shaped than movies made today. “First Reformed” is filmed in 1:33 aspect ratio, as was “Ida.” The image is square-shaped; the sides do not stretch to the edges of the screen. At first, I wondered if a theater technician would arrive to adjust the projector. When no technician arrived, I realized that Schrader had made a conscious artistic choice. 

Pawel Pawlikowski, who made “Ida,” chose the 1:33 ratio to recreate the “antiquated” look of a 1950s TV screen. Was Schrader saying, with this old-fashioned aspect ratio, that religious faith is old-fashioned, and has no place in the modern world? There are other clues in “First Reformed” that might support that interpretation. Rev. Toller, the main character, uses a flip phone. He drives an old car. These accoutrements could also be explained as exemplary of his poverty. Some reviewers say that the aspect ratio is meant to communicate claustrophobia. Religious faith closes you in, limits you. Schrader himself said that the aspect ratio is about “withholding” from his audience. 

The second thing the viewer notices is that the very first image, that remains onscreen for some time, would be perfectly at home in the opening of a horror film. The first image is that of a church, specifically, a two-hundred-fifty-year-old, Protestant, New England church from the colonial era. With its white clapboard siding, plain, high steeple, and Greek revival lines, the church announces, loud and clear: the birth of the United States, Protestantism and the Enlightenment, the cultural matrix from which America emerged. That such a quintessentially American structure would be so closely associated with horror films caused me to reflect. I had plenty of time to reflect. “First Reformed” is a slow-moving film, and the image remained onscreen for a long time. 

We have a tradition of associating horror with New England architecture. This tradition goes back to Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 short story “The Fall of the House of Usher,” inspired by a Boston mansion built in 1684. In 1851, Nathaniel Hawthorne published “The House of the Seven Gables,” also about a seventeenth-century New England home. Too, Stephen King lives in Maine. Our authors, true to our Western tradition of self-criticism, have looked long and hard at the sins of our ancestors, like the Salem witch trials and the slave trade that built many New England fortunes. 

Churches like the one in “First Reformed” are our cultural ancestors. It is good that we can criticize the bad that came of our tradition, but maybe it is time to reassess why it is so easy to associate its signatures with horror films. Maybe now is as good a time as any to find the best in our past. If an American film opened with a shot of a mosque, no fan of American popular fiction and film would have any reason to associate the mosque with horror. And, yes, I am mentioning mosques for a reason, as will become clear, below. 

The church stands alone and silent. The setting is winter. The most frequently repeated technique of horror film is to focus for a long time on something ostensibly benign, but known to the audience to be a trope of hidden danger – a church, a doll, the hallway of a family home. Movies require action and tension. If the camera is focused on an immobile, benign object that appears to be in conflict with nothing, the tension builds inside the viewer herself. That inner tension springs when, at the last minute, something horrific explodes onto the screen. Paul Schrader is a Hollywood veteran. He knows all this. And, indeed, something quite horrific, bloody, gory, and frightening will explode out of this church and onto this screen. But not just yet. This is an art movie; the viewer must exercise patience. 

A. O. Scott, writing in the New York Times, also found “First Reformed” to be evocative of horror. Scott says that horror films scare us with a supernatural presence, whereas “First Reformed” is about a horrifying supernatural absence, specifically, the absence of God. Scott quotes a poem. “The breath of God had carried out a planned and sensible withdrawal from this land,” that is, America. Our nation is now Godless. 

Ethan Hawke stars as Reverend Toller. In films like this, the viewer always looks for meaning in character names. Toller may indeed be an allusion to John Donne’s line, “send not to know / For whom the bell tolls, / It tolls for thee.” This is a quote from a poem that emphasizes that no man is alone, but, rather, his fate is intertwined with all other fates. The other message in the line is a memento mori. When you hear a funeral bell, Donne counsels, don’t ask for whom the funeral is being held. It’s ringing for you. “Toller,” the ringer of the bell, is here to inform you that we are all doomed. And by “we” the movie means humans, plants and animals as well. As usual, one can hold out hope for cockroaches

Rev. Toller is in his late 40s. His son was killed in Iraq. His wife left him. Toller is pastor in upstate New York. In a poignant scene, Toller shows visiting children a secret door in the church. This door leads to a hiding place for escaping slaves. The church was a way station on the Underground Railroad. Nowadays, though, Toller doubts the church’s relevance. The church is now more of a way station for tourists, who visit its giftshop and buy t-shirts, hats and other tchotchkes emblazoned with its logo. A good percentage of Toller’s dwindling congregants are women he has had sex with and rejected, and women who want to have sex with him but haven’t yet. Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is a parishioner who is a member of the latter group. Do I have to tell you what to make of the name “Mary”? Mary is the Madonna, the mother of Jesus Christ. 

Ethan Hawke’s face is alive to every nuance of every utterance. When teaching the children about the Underground Railroad, he is authentically paternal. When counseling one of his nuttier congregants, he is authentically gritty and sardonic. I so wish Hawke’s Oscar-worthy performance were in a richer, deeper film. His performance’s quality and intensity diminishes everything else onscreen, nothing of which is as well-crafted. 

Amanda Seyfried never elevates Mary beyond “generic blonde.” Toller’s superior, Rev. Jeffers, is played by the charismatic Cedric Kyles. The viewer is curious about Jeffers, a large, handsome black minister in a bespoke suit who shepherds a megachurch. Is he, unlike Toller, sincere in his faith? Is he a prosperity gospel con artist with a private jet? Is he schtupping his parishioners? We never plumb Jeffers’ character. The script allows Jeffers to say only enough to be a convenient foil for Toller. Philip Ettinger is gifted with a juicy part as a would-be terrorist, but his zealous obsession never rises above the pique of a couch potato whose favorite TV show was pre-empted by breaking news. 

Toller’s church interior is typical of a New England, Greek Revival, Protestant, colonial-era church. His living quarters echo the same eras and style. Toller, when at home, walks through the kind of doorways, and looks out the kind of windows, one might see the Thomas Jefferson character pass and gaze through in a film about the Declaration of Independence. The windows are framed with neo-classical columns; the doorways topped with entablatures. Mary’s home interior, on the other hand, features Arts and Crafts touches. 

Both Toller’s home interior and Mary’s home interior are almost bare. Toller’s has a bed, and that’s about it. Mary has a couch and a lamp in the shape of an eyeball. (God sees all. This is an art movie, remember.) Schrader has said that the minimal set reflected his goal to keep things simple. Whether he intended it or not, placing Toller and Mary in architectural settings that their figures never manage to fill had a different impact on this viewer. 

Greek Revival, Colonial architecture flourished during this country’s founding. In harkening back to the Greek Classical era, our Founders were celebrating rationality and hope. “Man is the measure of all things,” the Ancient Greeks said. Give me where to stand, and I can move the world, Archimedes vowed. The Arts and Crafts movement, which inspired Mary’s dwelling, flourished at the turn of the twentieth century. It reflected hope as well, along with earthiness and creativity. Toller and Mary are like midgets attempting, and failing, to inhabit the footsteps of giants. The architecture surrounding them, and all that that architecture implies, dwarves them. With their fear, their despair, and their confused failing, they never live up to the ambitions of their cultural ancestors. Like it or not, Lilliputian Mary and Toller, surrounded by resonant architecture, are figures of cultural decay. 

Mary’s slacker husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), is an environmental terrorist wannabe. “Michael” means “Who is like God?” The answer is no one, and that’s certainly true of Michael. Mary is pregnant; Michael wants her to abort his son. Toller, who lost his son in the Iraq war, tells Michael that bringing a child into this world is much better than sending one out. Michael argues that by the time his child is an adult, climate change will have raised the oceans. Overpopulation will have caused famine. Species are dying out at alarming rates. It is a crime, Michael insists, to bring a child into this world. Later, Mary reveals to Toller that she has discovered that Michael has prepared a suicide vest. Toller, rather than reporting the vest to the police, takes it home. Implausible? Well, you tell me. You’ve got explosives that could kill you; do you really want them in your bedroom? There are easier ways to remodel. 

Toller, meanwhile, must duck the attentions of Esther (Victoria Hill), a beautiful, caring, professional, Christian woman who loves Toller and with whom he has made love. When Toller and Esther converse, they do so in front of a wall with Biblical verses written on it in giant lettering. I don’t suppose Schrader is often accused of subtlety. Toller wants nothing to do with Esther. Esther clearly cares for Toller, and he can’t stand that, possibly because her caring is a reminder to him of what a basket case he is. Possibly because his egotistical rejection of Esther is analogous to his rejection of community, or a caring God. Or maybe it’s just that Esther is pushing fifty, a spinster, and she wears glasses and her brown hair in a bun. Mary is younger, has no glasses, and wears her long, blonde hair down. When Toller finally says to Esther, “I despise you,” Hawke is cruelly convincing as a cold, jilting lover.  

There is much emphasis on waste. Toller’s toilet is clogged. He is shown using a plunger and drain cleaner. Toller urinates blood. Jeffers says that Martin Luther composed “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” while seated in an outhouse, attempting to have a bowel movement. Pastor Jeffers sings the song with scatological emphasis. These references to waste are reflected in Michael’s obsession with human waste despoiling the planet. 

Michael shoots himself in the head. In an unnecessary scene, that possibly strained the film’s low budget, the viewer is treated to a graphic image of a dead body in the snow, brains visible, blood all around. Michael asked that his ashes be scattered at a toxic waste dump. Rev. Toller must stand at the shore of a post-industrial slough and see the world as Michael saw it: doomed. 

First Reformed is to celebrate its two-hundred-fiftieth anniversary with a re-consecration. Jeffers has invited Edward Balq (Michael Gaston.) Balq is a rich, white, American, Christian male. He’s an industrialist. He manufactures … does it really matter what he manufactures? It’s something that is destroying the earth. Anyway. He manufactures paper. Balq reprimands Toller for participating in Michael’s dispersal of ashes. Jeffers supports him. After all, Balq donates the money that keeps the door of the church open. In addition to Balq, the governor and many other V.I.P.s will be at the re-consecration. Oh, and Toller has visited a doctor. And the doctor has told him what the viewer has already suspected, seeing his bloody urine. Toller may have cancer. 

If you watch as many movies as I do, you know exactly what will happen next. Russian playwright Anton Chekhov famously said, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” Rev. Toller, secret drunk, assuming he’s dying anyway, has taken enviro-terrorist Michael’s doom-saying to heart. He, Toller, will don the suicide vest. He will do this at the re-consecration, in the presence of all those bad white, Christian, American men who are despoiling the environment. He’ll also get rid of Esther, that pious spinster who doesn’t have the decency to disappear after exploitative sex. 

If you watch as many movies as I do, you will also feel so disappointed. A rich, white, American, Christian industrialist is the bad guy? Really? Talk about a diabolus ex machina – a stereotypical villain who has nothing to do with anything that has gone before, no organic integrity for the movie you’ve been watching, and none for the real-life issues the film wants to address. For a really villainous white male, Schrader should have just injected Hans Gruber from “Die Hard” into “First Reformed.“ 

A fan review written by thirty-year veteran Pastor Dave Gipson pointed out the silliness of Balq. Churches being “underwritten by evil corporations is not a usual scenario. I know of no churches that receive corporate funding. It simply doesn’t work that way. And if Schrader had bothered to ask anyone, they could have told him.”

Not just rich, white, American, Christian men damage the environment. It is also damaged by poor agriculturalists who burn forests and increase desertification. In Muslim and Hindu societies, little girls are forced to marry adult men and pump out as many babies as possible as quickly as possible, whether the farmstead can feed them or not. In much of the “Global South,” any concept of environmentalism has yet to gain popular support. 

If Schrader really wanted a believable villain who uses his money to control what can and cannot be said about theology, he need look no further than Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, who writes big checks to Georgetown University, which pumps out pro-Islam “scholarship.“ 

“First Reformed” depicts Toller as utterly isolated, as if no Christian had ever engaged in activism. When Toller attempts to discuss environmental destruction, Jeffers swivels his chair so that its back is facing him. This is nonsense. The current pope, author of “Laudato si’: On Care for Our Common Home,” has linked environmentalism with Christian faith. There are the Berrigan brothers, Jim Wallis, Martin Sheen, The Catholic Worker and the Nuns on the Bus. There are Christian communities, like the Amish, who live with minimal modern conveniences. There are eco-friendly Bruderhofs, Christian communes, in New York state, close to the setting of “First Reformed.” If Rev. Toller really wanted to help the environment, he would have many Christian allies. Indeed, he would have allies in industry. There is nothing the modern industrialist wants more than a “clean” image. 

Since 9-11, The Religion of Peace website claims, Muslim terrorists have carried out tens of thousands of terror attacks. Suicide attacks are “the preferred tactic of Islamist terror organizations.” Children, from Africa to Israel to Afghanistan to Indonesia, are frequently deputized to carry out suicide attacks. In 2017, the United Nations reported that, “Since 2014, 117 children – more than 80 per cent of them girls – have been used in ‘suicide’ attacks across the region” of Nigeria and Chad. How many Dutch Reformed ministers in upstate New York have donned suicide vests? And yet “First Reformed” depicts Toller and Jeffers bemoaning “jihadism” among Christians. One reviewer called the film a “Calvinist jihad.“ 

A website quotes Schrader equating Christianity and Islam. Christians, Schrader insisted, are prey to “a jihadist fantasy. It’s not much different than the Muslim kid who has that same fantasy. Christians have been having it for thousands of years … It is built into the DNA of Christianity. Christianity can be jihadistic just as easily as Islam.”

In one interview, posted online in Italian, Schrader said his character’s donning of a suicide vest is, “Part of Christendom. Christianity started as a blood cult, you had to sacrifice animals … Songs like the one in the film where they say ‘Did you wash yourself in the blood?’ What does it mean to wash oneself in the blood? … This is jihadism. When we talk about Muslim ‘madmen’ and their jihad, we should remember that this aspect of our religious tradition, however, is like jihadism!”

Paul Schrader exploits the MacGuffin, or plot device, of a suicide vest to solve his problem. What is Schrader’s problem? This – spirituality is largely an interior phenomenon. Spirituality is about what people think, feel, hope, and work toward over years. Movies are about grabbing the viewer’s attention with sensational, novel, action. Exploding cars, or, for something really new, an exploding car being driven by Godzilla. As Schrader said in an interview, “Everything inside cinema rebels against spirituality. Cinema is based on action and based on empathy. These are not elements in the transcendental toolkit. In many ways, people who try to do spiritual or contemplative films are working against the grain of the medium itself.”  

Wait, there’s more. Movies are about sex and violence. We’ve already addressed the violence. Let’s address the sex. 

One night, Mary shows up at Rev. Toller’s residence. She asks to lie on top of him. My first thought: the movie has suggested that he has cancer in his abdomen. Isn’t having a pregnant woman lying on top of him going to hurt? Guess not. As Mary lies on top of Toller, their bodies levitate – another trope from horror films, specifically “The Exorcist” – and they float through blissful space. They envision magnificent nature scenes. Then they see environmental destruction. Afterward, Toller insists that Mary not attend the re-consecration. He’s ready, willing and able to blow Esther up, but not Mary. 

Now, Mary is a young, pregnant woman whose terrorist husband just committed suicide. She’s got to be feeling at least three different species of crippling trauma. The script doesn’t allow Mary even to hint at the kind of agony, rage, and fear that a real woman would undergo under such circumstances. Mary is merely a mannequin there to function as Toller needs her to function. This “daring” “progressive” movie is as misogynist as atheists imagine Christianity to be. 

The day of the re-consecration, Toller dons the suicide vest. If nothing else, I thought, this movie is going to go out with a bang. Toller looks out the window. Mary, against his wishes, has shown up. Drat. Toller removes the suicide vest, and does what any one of us would do under similar circumstances. He wraps his chest in barbed wire, lacerating and bloodying himself. “If it bleeds, it leads.” Schrader, not himself a man of faith, with no other cards to play, keeps eyeballs on the screen with shock value. 

Inside the church, Esther begins singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” a song about how comforting faith is. Esther is an inferior fool. Esther doesn’t care about the environmental degradation of the planet! Esther is too clingy and pious to confront man’s meaningless isolation in an uncaring universe! Esther wallows in religion’s phony comfort. 

Toller, wearing barbed wire the way a Tannenbaum wears tinsel, pours himself a frat-house-sized helping of drain cleaner. Sure, he’s going to off himself in the most painful way possible, but he’s also doing something far more important in an art film. He’s creating a metaphor. He is clogged with waste. He needs to be cleaned out. Just like the planet! As he is about to raise the glass to his lips, Mary opens the door. She sees bloodied Toller preparing to scarf down poison. She rushes to him and slathers him with passionate kisses. Hey. It would make for an unforgettable Drano ad. 

Ending with sex, Schrader takes the same route that “Ida” took. “Ida” is a slow, quiet bore of a movie centered on an all but silent, not particularly bright Catholic nun. As this black-and-white, subtitled snooze-fest limps to its close, the nun removes her veil and she has sex. 

The one interesting character in “Ida” is Wanda. Wanda is a sexy, complicated smart-mouth. Wanda is based on Helena Wolińska-Brus, a Soviet-era Communist judge who sent many Polish heroic anti-Nazi fighters to torture, death, and unmarked graves. Nuns are stupid and boring. Communist murderers are sexy, smart, and complex. This is the movie that inspired “First Reformed.”  

“First Reformed”’s problems are reflective of many films made by atheists about believers. The atheist stereotype is that those of us who believe in God are stupid, pious, bores – like poor Esther, who is worthy to be blown up, or Ida the nun, who is only interesting in the final scenes, when she removes her habit and spreads her legs. Schrader and Pawlikowski both prescribe, in their films, the antidote for crises of faith. One must get laid. To both these directors I would say, with Blaise Pascal, that there is an “infinite abyss” inside every man that “can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.“ 

Ironically, Schrader’s film repeatedly references Thomas Merton. Merton had everything a man could want. He enjoyed worldly success and certainly lots of sex. And Merton gave it all up to become a cloistered monk. Church history includes many who “had it all” and threw it all away to live spiritual lives. Saint Augustine, Katharine Drexel, Teresa of Avila, Ignatius Loyola, movie star Dolores Hart, model Olalla Oliveros, some-time actor Karol Wojtyla, all left varying degrees of wealth, privilege, success, power and happiness to pursue something that Paul Schrader never manages to hint at in “First Reformed.“ 

Danusha Goska is the author of Save Send Delete and Bieganski, the Brute Polak Stereotype. Her book God through Binoculars will be out later this year.