Dir. Paul Schrader. Starring Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles
I spent a long time preparing the joke: when an American remakes Winter Light (and sort of smushes in a little Diary of a Country Priest), he ends it with an explosion. The movie disappointed my joke, alas, although I’m not sure it would have been worse if it had ended up serving my punchline.
As it is, the first half of First Reformed, which follows Winter Light as closely as a moron in a BMW follows someone going five above the speed limit, is extremely fine. I mean:
The second half of the film is, alas, a mostly uninspired casserole of hypocrites collecting praise and imagining what would happen if Gunnar Bjornstrand had ended up with Gunnel Lindblom. It’s hard not to admire Schrader’s adaptation of Bergman, which brilliantly replaces nuclear China with global climate change. (My single complaint from this first half: Bergman didn’t need his priest to keep a diary, which is the PowerPoint with full sentences on it of movies.) Jonas Persson had given up hope because of a possibility; Michael (Philip Ettinger) gave up hope because of a certainty. First Reformed is the first movie I’ve ever seen which presents climate change as a fact that will devastate the planet and will turn vast swaths of it into a wasteland. Where something like An Inconvenient Truth means to mobilize its viewers, First Reformed presents climate change as a fait accompli, an apocalypse we know has already begun and cannot be stopped. Michael knows it. When Mary (Seyfried) invites Ernst (Hawke) over to speak to her husband, Michael has his own speech prepared that he’s probably given a thousand times in his head. It’s a good sequence, maybe even the best one in the movie, and it shakes Ernst more than he admits to his diary. The intellectual debate of whether or not it is fitting to bring life into a doomed world appeals to him, but as the movie goes on it becomes harder for him to nudge the feeling away that the calamity that Michael assures him will happen within his lifetime is just intellectual. That feeling eats at him more after finding Michael’s basically headless body in the woods, which also happens to end the clear comparisons with Winter Light.
Without the spareness of Winter Light to ape, First Reformed gets awfully busy. Ernst is forced to confront, aside from the threat of climate change, a host of other problems. His guilt over his inability to prevent Michael’s suicide is problematized by the clear mutual attraction between himself and Mary. The 250th anniversary of First Reformed is coming up, an event which has strings of substantial strength attached to it by his superior, Reverend Jeffers (Kyles) and his financial backer, the energy mogul Edward Balq (Michael Gaston). The First Reformed equivalent of Marta, Esther (Victoria Hill), has to be managed. Ernst’s bloody urine and spare diet are on the verge of being diagnosed as stomach cancer, and his boozy evenings are on the verge of being discovered as alcoholism. If this seems like a lot to squeeze into the final two-thirds of a movie which isn’t even two hours long, it’s because it is, and the movie’s ending showcases those problems. Ernst’s original plan is to use the suicide bomber vest that Michael hid in his garage to blow up Balq, who is a bad person, but Mary comes back for the anniversary service. Unable to go through with his plan to blow up the church if it means blowing up Mary, Ernst decides to wrap some barbed wire around himself instead, and then proceeds to pour himself some drain cleaner. (That we have seen Chekhov’s suicide vest, barbed wire, and drain cleaner only serves to make “Chekhov’s” seem like a hardware store.) Mary gains entrance to the little parsonage; they kiss; the movie ends. It’s an ending that cuts out the unpleasantness that will follow from the (deep breath) firing, stomach cancer, climate change, and not unimportantly, removing the barbed wire and getting Ernst to the ER. This is purposeful—Schrader has opted for some kind of hope, like a chess player on the verge of mate who refuses to resign—and has the virtue of being unexpected. It also obliterates the emotional work the movie has done. Not to get “mainstream reviewer talking about Nine in reference to 8 1/2” obnoxious, but there’s a reason that Winter Light ends with Tomas choosing to return faithlessly to his work and Diary of a Country Priest ends with said priest hightailing it to Abraham’s bosom. First Reformed has chosen by not choosing very much at all, for hope has moulted for far too long in this movie for this ending to make much sense.
None of that changes Ethan Hawke’s performance, who got rid of the goatee and turned into an adult for the role. As he’s gotten older, he’s discovered a deep rasp (see that scene I hate watching from Before Midnight) that’s very effective, and an obvious counterpoint to his “I’m just joshin’ you, man” voice he’s had for the previous fifteen years. It carries authority, makes him more adult. There are few roles harder to play than full-blown existential crisis, simply because a lack of nuance in even one scene can torpedo the entire exercise. Yet Hawke never falters; his reactions feel real and his story feels lived-in. He is resigned about the inevitable cancer diagnosis, but irate about Esther’s thirsty display of caring. Both scenes, one where he holds no power and one where he relishes all of it, are equally well-done. With Schrader’s own religious background supporting him, there’s a realistic depiction of belief from Hawke, which is another type of performance that all too easily goes awry. There’s disappointment and alienation in him. I’ve never thought of Hawke as a particularly physical actor, but in one shot he is crouched in such a way that we can even the younger Hawke.
The younger Toller, looking for all the world like Hawke twenty years ago, never believed he would live in such a spare room in such a depopulated church, staring at the wall with a dim candle in his periphery. There is no disappointment without a sense of alternate pathways; in this room, crouched up against his bed, it’s clear that Ernst must consider all of these alternatives and wonder how far he has fallen. Schrader, to his credit, does not rely too heavily on close-ups. They are not infrequent, and yet the number of shots that feature most or all of Ernst’s body outweigh the number of shots that are just close on his face; it puts more pressure on Hawke (and Seyfried, too, who probably gets an even lower percentage of close-ups than Hawke) to act with his whole body, to react with limbs rather than just eyebrows.
According to Jeffers, Ernst is “in the garden” all the time, which, as he points out, accounted for only a very small percentage of Christ’s life on Earth. This would be true even without Michael’s suicide, since Ernst’s journal (to be consigned to flames of woe after a year of keeping it) is begun before he ever meets Michael, and his drinking habit must precede the journal by who knows how many years. After his son was killed in the Middle East, after having been pressured by Ernst to go (whose family’s history of martial participation includes himself), his wife left him. First Reformed has pointedly Calvinist roots. This is not a happy man. Yet the line itself is meaningful in that charmingly ambiguous way Biblical references often have: by poetically referring to “the garden” rather than referring to Gethsemane directly, Jeffers has left open the connection to Eden as well. It’s apt, given Ernst’s new perspective on stewardship and his driving question—”Will God forgive us?”—which must have dominated the minds of Adam and Eve for the rest of their lives. For Ernst, at least, he must give thanks that he and his planet will not have as much time to rue their errors as Adam and Eve were given.