Hopelessness and despair have been constant companions for me the past few weeks. I’m having a hard time seeing a future past the immediate next few months, and sometimes I catch myself spiraling away into the urge to just give up, maybe in the most drastic way possible.
But when I get like this I think about the movie First Reformed, the Paul Schrader film starring Ethan Hawke as a priest-turned-ecoterrorist, and I remember the beautiful message of that movie – a message that I think many people don’t see. But I do. And it strengthens me. It’s a line from the film, based on the writings of Christian mystic Thomas Merton: “Despair is a form of pride.”
I wrote about this aspect of First Reformed years ago on my Patreon, and while it was a Patron exclusive back in 2018, I think in 2020 it’s okay to share it with everybody. I hope you find something useful in here, if only the urge to watch First Reformed.
Without further ado, my original piece on First Reformed and hopelessness and despair:
Have you ever felt hopeless? Have you ever been in a situation where you simply could not see a way out? All of us have, at one time or another. We have all stood shaking as despair has eclipsed hope, leaving us blind and unsure how to move forward. We have all been confronted with a situation whose end we cannot properly imagine – we can see no way out.
This, argues Paul Schrader in First Reformed, is a sin. It is a sin of pride. It’s a two pronged pride: first it’s the idea that the way I want it is the best way for it to be, and any outcome beyond the one I want is a bad outcome. But second, and more profoundly, hopelessness is the statement that you know everything, and that if you can’t see a way out… well, then there can’t be a way out, can there? You’re saying you know more than God (in the context of First Reformed) or the universe, that you somehow have seen every angle and possibility and you know there’s no chance that it’ll work out in the end.
It’s such a simple concept, but it is so profound, and it doesn’t require a huge belief in God or destiny or anything mystical to change your life. All it requires is the ability to say “I don’t know.” That’s the simple antidote to hopelessness. It isn’t false optimism, it isn’t forced positivity – it’s simply saying “I don’t know how it will turn out.”
Schrader wrote Taxi Driver, a movie about the hopelessness that infects the center of American life. It’s very much a young man’s look at hopelessness, a raging against the hollow and meaningless post-Vietnam world. It was a movie about a man looking for meaning in a world devoid of it, and making his own through violence. It was a cynical and mean movie that, in its final moments, calls into question the very concept of heroism and being a good guy. It’s a cry of existential angst punctuated with gunshots.
First Reformed is a spiritual sequel to Taxi Driver; it has nothing to do with Travis Bickle’s bloody rampage, but it tackles many of the same concepts and questions but with the point of view of a man forty years older. Schrader does not so much rebuke his earlier vision as expand upon it, and he presents a new vision of God’s lonely man, one also desperately trying to find meaning in a world that has been drained of all hope.
Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Ernst Toller is a middle aged priest working in a small, historic church that exists mostly to support a gift shop. He preaches to a tiny congregation, staying afloat because the local megachurch has purchased his church, operating it almost out of pity. The Reverend who runs that church (Cedric the Entertainer in a really great, nuanced and kind performance) definitely keeps Toller on out of pity. Toller, who comes from a long line of military men, convinced his son to serve overseas, and he was killed in action. Toller’s marriage fell apart and he has sunk into self-pity and alcoholism, spending his days procrastinating fixing the historic church organ (a metaphor for his penis? It’s Schrader, so probably!).
Into his life comes Mary, a character with a loaded Christian name, played by Amanda Seyfried. She’s pregnant, and her husband is having a hard time. An environmental activist, the husband believes that the climate has passed the point of no return and that his child is being born to a doomed planet. He’s suicidally depressed, and Mary hopes that the equally depressed Toller can help. But Toller, already on the precipice, finds himself infected by the husband’s dim vision of the future, and suddenly he sees absolutely no hope. Not only for himself, but for the entirety of the human race. Like Travis Bickle before him, Toller looks at this world drained of meaning and decides that he will enforce his own meaning upon it through violence.
Full spoilers for First Reformed follow. Don’t read further if you haven’t seen the movie! See the movie and then come back here.
The first act of First Reformed is stiff, almost stilted. There’s a formality to the indie aesthetic Schrader uses, and his scenes seem to start a little too early or last a little too long – he leaves silence at either end of his scenes. But what at first seems like a weird no-budget editing problem reveals itself to be a purposeful reflection of Toller’s inner state. He is pointless and airless, walking through life without verve or snap. But there’s a scene where Toller realizes that the biggest donor to his church is the CEO of a highly polluting megacorp, and that this polluter will be coming to his church for an event, and that he can take action and kill this man at that time, and that’s when the movie, like Toller, finds its purpose and its stride. It’s a remarkable marriage of form and meaning.
First Reformed is fantastic filmmaking in general; Schrader is another of his generation of artists proving that you don’t have to lose a step when you get older (and that even if you lose a step you can still get it back). There’s such rawness to First Reformed that it all but bleeds in your lap, and as Toller’s plan moves towards its nihilistic fruition the movie ratchets up the tension, scene by scene and moment by moment.
Hawke is incredible, bringing a level of inner turmoil to the screen that is palpable but not corny. Too often actors play their turmoil too big, and you wonder how any of the people they’re interacting with in a given scene are taking them seriously. But Hawke boils just under the surface, and he’s masterful at having Toller do things that play, on initial inspection, as just the misbehavior of a depressed alcoholic but that later become clear as the actions of a performatively suicidal man pushing others away from his blast radius (literally).
Maybe forty years ago Schrader would have told this story differently. A priest, losing his faith, finds a new faith in ecoterrorism, something for which he is willing to sacrifice his life. He sees himself as a martyr, a holy warrior, a Christian jihadist for the Earth. Maybe forty years ago Schrader would have ended the movie with Toller blowing up his church. Maybe forty years ago he would have ended the movie with Toller drinking the Drano.
But that isn’t how Schrader ends the film. He ends it with Mary coming in at the last moment, offering a light of hope as Toller is about to kill himself. They embrace and kiss and destruction is put off, at least for a moment, and Toller was saved by an eventuality he could not have foreseen.
There’s some discussion about whether or not the ending is real. Some people think that Toller killed himself with the Drano and that Mary bursting in the door is a death dream, or maybe Toller in heaven. I think that’s a cop out (I hate the death dream theory of the end of Taxi Driver as well). I think that denies First Reformed its meaning, its whole point. This is a film that spends its running time explaining how hopeless everything is, how bad everything is. To end on a note that says “Yes, everything is hopeless, but maybe you can be deluded about it in the end!” doesn’t feel cynical, it feels cheap. It’s not set up by the rest of the film, for one thing. Toller isn’t a man to have this kind of delusion – he’s laboring under the darker delusion, the delusion that he knows everything and that he knows there is no hope.
To have the ending be a death dream ruins Toller’s journey; one of the things I love about First Reformed is that it shows how spiritual wisdom happens. Early in the film Toller tells the suicidal husband all this stuff about hopelessness as a sin of pride, but he doesn’t believe it. It’s something he read that he wants to believe, but he hasn’t internalized it. To end the film with Toller simply having a death dream makes the entire movie a two hour slog to get the main character to the exact place he was at the beginning.
It also ignores the imagery that Schrader uses when Toller and Mary have their semi-sexual experience on the floor of the rectory; he turns it into a cosmic moment where the two transcend space and time. Having Mary arrive in the nick of time pays off this scene; to have the ending be a delusion renders this scene a waste of time.
The argument against this, I guess, is that First Reformed is so cynical that it shows us Toller transcending his loneliness only to forcibly push the other person away… and have her stay pushed away. This, in the end, is his punishment, and with that point of view First Reformed is a movie about a moral and physical coward who can’t take the steps to save himself but also can’t take the steps to make the violent change he believes is needed.
But if the ending is real it’s about a man struggling with hopelessness who learns the meaning of his own words from earlier in the film, who realizes that there’s always another turn in the road and that what lies beyond there is hidden from us. Taking the ending at face value – as I do – the scene becomes a profound moment of holiness. It makes the whole movie a variation on the ‘I sent you a rowboat’ story, but one where the guy gets into the fucking rowboat at the end. This is how miracles work, Schrader says – not in flashes of light or with heavenly choirs, but with two people making an unlikely connection and being there for each other. This is how God works.
If the ending of this movie is a death dream, First Reformed is the ultimate feelbad film, as it lays out pretty starkly the facts about climate change… and then ends with a message that we are all fucked, and that hopelessness is the only answer. But if the ending is literal then the movie rebukes itself, and tells us to walk forward towards change. Just because we can’t see the solution to the climate crisis today doesn’t mean there will never be a solution.
I guess it all comes down to what you want out of a movie like this. If you want to believe that it’s all over but the shouting, take the ending as a death dream. Pick up a bindle of smack and get shooting, because you might as well die in a beautiful delusion.
But if you want to believe that you don’t know all the answers, that, in the words of Lawrence of Arabia, “Nothing is written,” then take the ending literally. Know that things are bad, that the chips are down, that you and I cannot see how this can all work out… but know that we should avoid self-destructing so that we can find out what comes knocking at the door.
I think Paul Schrader believes something will come knocking on the door.
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