Incandescence and Despair: Further Thoughts on First Reformed
“You’re always in the garden. For you, every hour is the darkest hour.”
– Rev. Jeffers to Rev. Toller in First Reformed
“It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life.”
– Rev. John Ames in Gilead
A slew of professional reviewers have now weighed in on Paul Schrader’s new film First Reformed, and they have pronounced it a triumph, even a “resurrection” for Schrader. Artfully crafted and intensely compelling, Schrader’s latest endeavor has impressed critics and audiences as a worthy culmination (so far, anyway) of his long and notable career as a screenwriter, filmmaker, and theoretician—even theologian—of the form.
The narrative arc of the film is aptly encapsulated in many reviews (I would suggest reading this one and this one), so I won’t reiterate the premise here. But in essence First Reformed is a character study in alienation and despair, particularly of the religious variety. To describe the main character, Rev. Ernst Toller, Schrader himself uses Kierkegaard’s phrase “sickness unto death.” This is a man whose personal grief and physical illness have propelled him toward what might be called a crepuscular vision of the world: darkness is falling and God has gone silent. Toller, played with fierce restraint by Ethan Hawke, attempts to keep going through the motions with the tiny flock at his “souvenir shop” of a church; however, as A. O. Scott of the New York Times puts it, “the strands of Toller’s experience twist into a rope that binds and scourges him, until extreme actions start to feel logical and inevitable.”
Reviewers like to mention the fact that Schrader endured a “strict Calvinist upbringing” as though that explains something, though they don’t explicate what. The Rolling Stone reviewer seems to believe it explains Toller’s “war between flesh and spirit” (which is not actually his problem, in my view) and mentions the “Dutch Reform Church.” But neither Toller’s problems nor religious despair in general are particularly Calvinist, nor do I think that’s what Schrader means to suggest. Schrader has long thought about what it means to capture the holy in art, and a portrait of despair is one stunningly effective way to get there—though not the only way.
I was able to view First Reformed back in February, when Schrader visited Calvin College for a screening as well as a lecture and panel discussion. Schrader seemed gratified that six hundred people packed a local theater for the screening. At the lecture, also well attended, Schrader described the “transcendental style in film” that he found so alluring as a young man—alluring enough to publish a scholarly book with that title in 1972 when he was 26. As much as he admired the mid-century spiritual filmmakers whose techniques the book describes, he was too enamored of “the profane” at that time to make a film in the transcendental style himself. So First Reformed, he said, is the film he thought about but didn’t make for forty years. (His more recent thoughts about transcendental style are also part of the newly released, updated edition of the book.)
At the panel, Nicholas Wolterstorff—who was Schrader’s professor at Calvin in the 1960s—helpfully mapped out features of the transcendental style: a lingering pace, spare production design, lack of human expression, a focus on an ordinary though alienated character, and a plot that involves disruption, intrusion, and conclusion in stasis. Schrader described particular filmmaking techniques used in First Reformed that help create the slow, meditative effect characteristic of this style, including master camera angles with no tilts or pans, the lack of “underscoring” (i.e., an emotive soundtrack), and a severely limited color palate—“as close to black and white as I could get.”
With these techniques, Schrader explained, a film refuses to reach out and grab the viewer or tell the viewer how to feel; it “leans away from the viewer,” using “boredom as an aesthetic tool.” While Hollywood films vibrate with action and empathy, transcendental style slows down to the point where the viewer even becomes aware of time passing. You are compelled to lean toward the film, enter a meditative state, ponder the non-material. With the ever-accelerating pace of films—Schrader remarked that every ten to fifteen years, the number of cuts in popular films doubles—a relatively slow pace is both easier to achieve and even more disorienting.
All these techniques make for a beautiful film. I marveled over the darkly lit interior shots, with their Caravaggio-like chiaroscuro, or the austere rooms framed like a Vermeer. The visual style and pacing also enable us to regard Rev. Toller’s existential crisis with both empathy and discerning distance. He is not meant to be an exemplar. Schrader said he wants the viewer to connect deeply with Toller, but then, at some point, wonder about his sanity to the point where our connection with him diverges. This is exactly what I experienced, and perhaps that divergence is at the heart of the film’s tenderness and dread.
Toller pastors a tiny, dying church sustained on life support by the thriving Abundant Life Church down the road, which in turn is largely bankrolled by an industrialist who casually denies his business’s environmentally devastating practices. Meanwhile, Toller attempts to counsel a young man, Michael, whose alarm about climate change drives him to ecoterrorism. In a long, patient, early scene, Toller tells Michael that “wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind at the same time” and “hope and despair in tension is life.” But holding contradictions and tensions is exhausting. One can only do it for so long.
As reviewers note, the film references and even satirizes the church’s tendency to genuflect to wealthy donors, while climate change provides the premise for Michael’s and (partially) Toller’s hopelessness. Scenes contrasting the little historical Dutch colonial church “museum” with the slick and thriving quasi-megachurch afford some delicious and timely ironies. But Toller’s particular impasses, humiliations, compromises, fears—all these vector out into universals. Extract Toller from this film’s context and place him in any other time and place, and he would still be a plausible character. The church has always been disappointing, corrupt, colluding. The world has always been ending. How people live with that is the larger question with which the story is concerned.
While Toller’s despair may not be distinctively Reformed, it does play out in distinctively Christian terms. He starts a kind of prayer journal, though God seems inscrutable and unaddressable to him. He broods on Thomas Merton. He takes up Michael’s question about climate devastation—“Will God forgive us?”—as a personal refrain generalized beyond any single issue. Even so, Christian beliefs and practices seem ineffectual. Schrader remarked at the lecture that Toller “picks up the virus of ecoterrorism” not necessarily because he truly believes in the cause but because it’s a convenient premise which Toller can combine with the “rich and historic Christian pathology” of blood sacrifice. This is nicely accented with the hymn “Are You Washed in the Blood” performed in an early scene.
“I have found a new way to pray,” an enraged and desperate Toller eventually writes in his journal. Sacrificial expiation, however distorted a response to his soul-sickness, becomes Toller’s compulsion. Even in the midst of Toller’s writhing away from God, however, shards of rapture and epiphany break through. Is it enough? That question will occupy you all the way home from the theater.
The February screening and visit occurred for me at the same time that I was teaching Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead in my English seminar for graduating seniors, and the parallels struck me as inescapable. Is Gilead’s slow, recursive, meditative style the novelistic equivalent of the transcendental style in film? If so, how could these two works create such different effects?
Both the film and the novel feature dying pastors, a church in decline, a small-town context. Both are imbued with Calvinist sensibilities. Both proceed at a demandingly slow pace (“Hardly anything happens in this novel,” I warned my students about Gilead.). In the novel, existential impasse is displaced from the main character, Rev. John Ames, to the enigmatic Jack Boughton, but John Ames has endured personal tragedy and a decades-long loneliness. Like Toller, he is no stranger to anguish.
Nevertheless, if First Reformed is crepuscular, Gilead is—to use one of Ames’ favorite words—“incandescent.” For Ames, an avid reader of Calvin among other theologians, Christianity proves effectively sanctifying, enabling him to perceive a radiant world, a “theater of God’s glory” in Calvin’s phrase. Deeply shaped by sacramental practice, this vision saturates existence itself for Ames with mystery and beauty. While Toller finds himself stuck in the agony of Gethsemane, Ames ascends the Mount of Transfiguration.
Why does Rev. Toller succumb to the sickness unto death while Ames serenely ponders the glory of existence? I suppose that would be a productive, though perhaps ultimately unanswerable question to explore. Faced with people’s indifference and cruelty, with the failures of the church, with the inevitable tragedies and absurdities of life, it’s not hard to see how someone like Toller could strain toward God only through Gethsemane anguish.
Perhaps a dialectic between anguish and transfiguration is an apt way to describe the spiritual life. In skilled hands, forms of art—film, fiction, and more—can represent for us various points along that dialectic, inviting us into the contemplation of the holy in all its terror and radiance. Whether by obliquely pointing or creating a gorgeously centering frame, iterations of “transcendent style” respond to a human yearning that can only be borne with our most enduring courage.
“I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave—that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm. … What have I to leave you but the ruins of old courage, and the lore of old gallantry and hope? Well, as I have said, it is all an ember now, and the good Lord will surely someday breathe it into flame again.”
— Rev. John Ames