Let’s Talk About the Ending of First Reformed

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Photo: A24

This is a story about the ending of First Reformed: spoilers to follow, obviously.

The ending of First Reformed, Paul Schrader’s remarkable new film, is a puzzle worthy of the great struggle that comes before it. For an hour and 45 minutes, Schrader charts the downward trajectory of Reverend Toller, teasing explosions and redemption, only to reveal — what, exactly?

It’s important, before we get into a detailed discussion of the plot, to understand the main influences Schrader is channeling. In a broad sense, First Reformed is like if the protagonist of Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest were put into the scenario of Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, updated for the United States circa right now. Like Bresson’s Priest, Toller, played by Ethan Hawke, is ill, alcoholic, and keeping a diary; like Bergman’s, he’s struggling with his faith when a congregant asks him to speak with her husband about terrible, Earth-threatening anxieties.

In the case of Winter Light, the man, Jonas, is anxious about nuclear annihilation, and in Bergman’s film, the pastor, Tomas, eventually denies the existence of God, leading Jonas to kill himself. Even though he keeps the suicide, Schrader strays from this plot significantly, having Toller vigorously defend God and do his best to help the despairing Michael. By substituting the destruction of the environment for the atomic bomb, Schrader achieves a remarkable effect: he makes the looming disaster more spiritual, more plausible, and far more personal than Jonas’s. And by replacing Tomas’s rejection of God with Toller’s agnosticism, he makes his protagonist a far more susceptible audience.

Tomas never catches his congregant’s disease, but Toller does. It begins during their conversation at Michael’s house, when Michael asks Toller, “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?” “Who can know the mind of God?” Toller responds, but it’s clear the question lands deep within him. After Michael kills himself, and Michael’s pregnant widow, Mary, reveals to Toller the suicide-bomb vest that Michael had been keeping in the garage, the film becomes a portrait of Toller reaching out from his own personal hell and into Michael’s: he starts researching climate change and protesting his church’s patronage by a nature-abusing corporation, at the same time continuing to pollute and destroy his own body.

As he does so, he becomes close with Michael’s pregnant widow, Mary, played by Amanda Seyfried, experiencing what seems to be his first real human relationship, besides a failed one with choir leader Esther — a character also based on one in Winter Light — since the death of his son, who was killed after he encouraged him to enlist in the military. Mary’s presence is crucial. First of all, there’s her name, which, obviously, evokes the Virgin Mary, Mother of God; moreover, she’s pregnant, a fact that Michael agonized over, despairing that the world was too broken to bring a child into. Insofar as there is any hope in First Reformed, it’s in the person of Mary, who moves toward the birth of her child while the men around her disintegrate.

When I talked to Schrader ahead of First Reformed’s release, he cited two other major influences on the film aside from Country Priest and Winter Light. Well into the movie, there’s a tremendously powerful scene in which Toller and Mary, the latter lying on top of the former, begin to levitate. The scene is mysterious and unexplained, and much of its potency has to do with the degree to which it strays from the film up to that point. Schrader shot First Reformed in a version of what he calls Transcendental Style, a term that he coined to categorize the filmmaking of Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu, Carl Th. Dreyer, and others, in which the director withholds many elements of cinema that we tend to expect — non-diegetic music, a.k.a. underscoring; camera movement; frequent and abrupt cuts — in order to essentially leave room for the spiritual.

But like his predecessors, Schrader knows that these rules are most effective when they’re broken, and in that sense, the levitation scene anticipates the ending. “I knew at the end I wanted to jump out of the world,” Schrader told me, “and I thought I should prefigure that in some way, and I just kept thinking, ‘What would [Andrei] Tarkovsky do?’ Well, he’d levitate! That’s his go-to position when people get horizontal.”

By levitating his two main characters, Schrader says to us that we may think we know what can happen in his film, but we don’t. In that sense, it creates a similar dynamic to that of spirituality, which continually suggests that the world around us, the so-called real world, could be transcended at any moment by contact with or intervention from the divine.

At the climax of First Reformed, Toller has donned Michael’s suicide vest, along with a penitential wrap of barbed wire under his cassock, with the plan of detonating it at the anniversary service for his church, where the CEO of a major environmental polluter will be present — along with plenty of other people. But, as he says to the leader of the megachurch that oversees his, “Somebody has to do something!”, and that desperation has taken the form of Michael’s, in whose footsteps Toller increasingly walks. It isn’t until he sees Mary in the pews, after warning her not to come, that Toller has second thoughts.

Schrader has toyed with the look of the whiskey in Toller’s glass all film, at one point mixing it with Pepto-Bismol to produce a revolting, oddly beautiful bloom, and at the end, that glass is filled with Drano, which looks disturbingly viscous and unnatural in a container meant for drinking. The nature of Toller’s self-destruction appears to have changed once again, caused by his inability to harm Mary. But the levitation scene earlier in the film, as well as the unusual sound of music — in this case, the hymn “Are You Washed in the Blood” — has warned the viewer that another force could intervene. What happens is not what Schrader originally had in mind.

“The biggest change in the script was — I’ve known [critic and filmmaker] Kent Jones a long time, and I gave him the script when I first wrote it,” Schrader told me. “He said to me, ‘I thought you were headed for the Ordet ending, but you went with the Country Priest ending,’ because in the script I gave him, the guy drinks the Drano, falls out of frame, and you’re left with the crucifix as he dies. And as soon as Kent said that, I said you’re absolutely right — this burst of carnality through this austere surface.”

Ah, yes, the Ordet ending: one of the most controversial and ecstatic conclusions of any film ever made. Here’s how James Schamus described Dreyer’s Ordet to the Criterion Collection: “The first two hours of the film consist mainly of Danish farmers and craftspeople arguing about Christian theology in veritable slow motion; the final six minutes, unless you’re an alien replicant, will have you on your knees, eyes lifted in wonder to the screen.” Ordet features the literal resurrection from the dead of a woman by her brother-in-law, who claims to be Jesus Christ and who had been taken, up to that point, as a madman; it ends with the resurrected woman embracing and kissing her husband openmouthed. It’s miraculous, sensual, and completely shatters the cinematic carapace that had been built around it.

In his 1972 book, Transcendental Style in Film, which has just been reissued with a new introduction, Schrader writes at length about Ordet and Dreyer’s approach to the resurrection. Here’s one passage that gives a general sense of how he sees the ending functioning within the greater approach of Transcendental Style:

The decisive action breaks the everyday stylization; it is an incredible event within the banal reality which must by and large be taken on faith. In its most drastic form, as in Dreyer’s Ordet, this decisive action is an actual miracle, the raising of the dead. In its less drastic forms, it is still somewhat miraculous: a nonobjective, emotional event within a factual, emotionless environment. The technical stops employed by the everyday are to varying degrees pulled out — the music soars, the characters emote … the decisive action suddenly and inexplicably demands the viewer’s full emotional output.

The decisive action in First Reformed, then, comes when Mary bursts into Toller’s room, he drops the Drano on the floor, and they embrace and kiss furiously, the music reaching a crescendo, the camera, so still for so long, circling them as though it were ecstatic to be unleashed. It’s a rupture, derailing the film from its aesthetic, narrative, and emotional tracks; like Ordet, it both refigures everything that came before it and still seems somehow of the world that has been created.

When I first saw it, I thought the ending suggested that the solitary and despairing Toller, ruined by the death of his son, could only find hope, and therefore grace and God, in the love of another person — that, as she does in the Christian tradition, Mary carried the seed of salvation in Schrader’s film as well. But the arrival of Mary is at once revelatory and uncanny, joyful and intoxicated: my “full emotional output” was certainly demanded, but I wasn’t entirely sure to what design. That was intentional.

“It’s calibrated to be read in different ways,” Schrader said, “because when you look at it closely, she suddenly appears, the room is much lighter, the footsteps go away — so [I was] trying to find the right balance between it being a kind of intervention of grace, a kind of miracle, or an ecstatic vision, which is also a kind of miracle, I guess.”

First Reformed is a parable about hope. It takes one of the central proclamations of Jesus Christ — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” — and attempts to provide, if not an answer, than at least a response, one tailored for what will likely become the great dilemma of our age. And if the ending of the film is open to interpretation, if it’s concerned less with what did or didn’t happen — Mary did intervene; Toller did go insane — and more with the ineffable notion of encountering grace, then that’s fitting. Few modern films take spirituality as seriously or as thoughtfully as First Reformed does, and even fewer strive to accomplish one of the great purposes of art: to express the inexpressible, to shine a light where it would otherwise be dark.

Let’s Talk About the Ending of First Reformed