Reverence or Revolt: On Paul Schrader’s First Reformed

(Spoiler alert: this piece refers to the film’s ending and is ideally meant for readers who have already seen the film. It is not a review but a brief exegesis into the film’s schemata and the director’s spiritual dilemma which it maps and mirrors.)

“Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our minds simultaneously. Hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.” (First Reformed)

First Reformed is the new film from writer-director Paul Schrader (American Gigolo, Cat People, Mishima). Schrader first came to prominence via his script for Taxi Driver, in many ways the movie that had the strongest influence in my life (as discussed in Seen & Not Seen). There are some striking parallels between First Reformed and Taxi Driver: Lonely guy keeps a journal, becomes impossibly enamored with an unobtainable woman, is preoccupied with God’s justice in the world, and in a misguided attempt to become an instrument of God, turns himself into a living weapon and embarks on a suicide mission. There are also some equally striking differences.

Rather than being a dysfunctional taxi driver in New York, Ethan Hawke’s Ernst Toller is a preacher in a small-town, old-world church. Unlike Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, he is nobly deranged, his madness sourced in genuinely unanswerable questions and irresolvable existential issues. He is what happens in the absence of true faith, in the presence of the knowledge of the emptiness of a Godless existence. In his soul rages the only war there is: the war between hope and despair. But as in Travis’ case, an act of violence presents itself to him as the only means to counteract the crushing weight of impotence: the only alternative to surrender is suicide, with a “cause.”

“Reason provides no answers,” he tells a desperate young man seeking counsel. “The only rational response is despair. . . Despair is a development of pride so great that it chooses one’s certitude rather than admit God is more creative than we are.” Hope, as the only answer to despair, is inseparable from faith: we must hope without reason, faith being our only evidence of things unseen.

Curiously, the notion of making movies—of making unreal things visible—is similar to hubris, or defiance of God, when a man (Paul Schrader) becomes the creator of a false reality by narrating his own fictions. As Dave Oshana once said, God is not a filmmaker, i.e., He is not interested in “selfies,” in storing up Kodak moments for posterity or prosperity. The ego, on the other hand, is nothing but a selfie-taker, forever collecting shiny trophies to line up, like Oscars on a shelf, and prove to itself that it exists.

So is First Reformed a work of reverence or revolt? I think maybe a bit of both. Schrader has directed easily his finest film, maybe even his masterpiece, by embracing what he terms the “transcendental style of cinema,” eschewing his usual attempts at more melodramatic storytelling, which he was never much good at anyway. (As Pauline Kael wrote, Schrader always lacked “film sense.”) With this film, he has stripped the cinematic medium down to its basics: human beings interacting in front of an unmoving camera. There is also almost no film score, just an eerily recurring sound effect. The film is spacious and austere; it feels close to the pure expression of an artistic (and spiritual) sensibility. It adheres to an internal faith-logic that’s also a pleasingly clean aesthetic. Style and content have become one. What it is actually saying is harder to discern.

Toller’s merging with the young mother, Mary—in a levitation dream sequence that foreshadows the final fantasy—indicates the fusing of yin and yang, male and female, positive and negative, hope and despair, even as the couple floats out over infinite space and mother Earth (both female symbols), giving way to the ruined wasteland of humanity’s pollutions. Toller is Thanatos (death) to Mary’s Eros or life force. And both have something growing inside them: Mary a child, life itself, Ernst a probably cancerous tumor, i.e., death.

Schrader has described the deliberately ambiguous ending—in which Toller “gets” the girl, whether in reality or his own dying fantasy—in positive terms, as Toller’s gaining Heaven. He has suggested that everyone’s interpretation of the film is equally valid. This is a postmodernist line that risks reducing his moral tale to a swirling void of meaningless subjectivity. Ironically, it is also an irreligious viewpoint. As Toller puts it, the emptiness of existence is there to be filled by the glory of our Lord: there is not a multitude of interpretations but only one, and it belongs to the Creator. In this case, that would be Schrader.

Will God forgive us for what we have done to his creation, is Toller’s burning question. But even while Toller’s focus is on the environmental destruction of the Earth, he pollutes his body with alcohol, turns it into a bomb, then wraps it in barbed wire and reduces it to a blocked toilet by drinking a glass of Drano (maybe). Does Schrader’s improbable ending—Toller’s being interrupted by Mother Mary and falling into an erotic embrace—indicate a true miracle? Or does it indicate false hope that only increases despair by avoiding the true “blackness”? Is it the unearned miracle of Deus ex Machina, the phantasy of a desperate scriptwriter angling for a happy ending, to his movie and to his career?

Does Toller forgive himself for what he has done to God’s creation, i.e., his body? Or does he only escape into the womb-like embrace of Mother Mary and disappear into an imaginary kiss? Like God, Schrader isn’t saying. Or perhaps, more like Satan, what he is saying is designed to confuse? Maybe he is afraid to judge Toller for the behaviors he has written into him because he is afraid that God will judge him in kind, for his own hubris?

As a not-quite lapsed Calvinist, Schrader was once forbidden to see movies at all, never mind to make them. Now he has crossed over to the dark side and become the demiurge-as-movie director, a creator of false idols for the masses. If First Reformed is his bid for redemption, it seems only half-sincere. But perhaps this makes it more honest, not less so. What becomes of an artist who confesses through his art to the sin of attempting to be more creative than God? Between the despair of seeing himself as nothing before God, and the despair of reducing God to something less than himself, what hope does that leave for poor Paul?*

Only the tiny spark of divine creativity that is life itself.

*This sentence may represent a universal fractal, as indicated by the author’s own dilemma in writing this piece: seeking to reach and hold the balancing point between the despair of seeing myself as a nothing-artist before Schrader, and the despair of reducing Schrader to something less than myself via exercising my “divine” (critical) judgment upon him.

3 thoughts on “Reverence or Revolt: On Paul Schrader’s First Reformed

  1. Paul Schrader left a big mark on me too. Growing up in the rural South, I was surrounded by Calvinists, and there is no beast so fierce as a Georgia Presbyterian. TULIP infects all thought, and the notion of making sensible reforms is welcomed with difficult to conceal to rage because, well, things are the way God intended them to be and any attempt to reform the world is an attempt to reform the divine order– a pretty major transgression. People who’ve got it good have it good because they were chosen. People who don’t? Clearly not. Schrader has never fully rejected his Calvinism. Why would he? He’s one the elect and irresistible grace is his…

  2. interesting; there’s a line in this movie given to Toller, about the American error of equating Christian piety with prosperity, a moment in which Toller (we later hear) almost loses his cool, it being an essential American perspective that salvation = being a winner.

  3. Right because being a winner means God chose you, and your success is manifest proof that you have already been saved. Your life of abundance was predestined. Pretty rosy spin on fate right? Trouble is, as Flannery O’Connor pointed out, if times get tough, you’ve only got nihilism to spill into.

    How does this one compare to ‘Light Sleeper’ (my favorite Schrader)?

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