Humiliated and insulted (and maybe even woke)
Written by: Andrea Stojanović
Translated by: Ivana Tubić
The 2017 movie First Reformed is a long-awaited piece by Paul Schrader, one of the most respected screenwriters, the voice of a generation that went quiet for 20 years, with occasional mumblings with no ear for the challenges of contemporaneity. The screenplay got him his first Oscar nomination after a long career of an artist held in the highest regard until he wasn’t. The plot is similar to what Schrader did best in his previous work – portraying frustration, anger, and despair in strong, male characters unable to find their place in the modern world.
The movie depicts incompetent and uninspired men and the equally incompetent and uninspired church, shadows of their former spirituality and strength. The protagonist is Ethan Hawke as father Toller, a priest who cannot pray, whose church can’t bring more than 20 believers to attend Sunday service. The First Reformed church is a paradigmatic representation of church in general – selling souvenirs and preparing the 250th anniversary of mere existence, the only accomplishment left to take pride in. Static camerawork, empty shots and the lack of score make for a nihilist, reductionist feel, a perfect fit for an anti-religious movie.
The priest holds dull sermons wanly, selling theme tags and caps. The person who should be leading his flock’s very souls through the turmoils of mortal life and prepare them for dying did not become a priest as an answer to God’s calling. Father Toller advised his own son to enlist in the army, which drove him to his death. He is, therefore, only there seeking comfort and relief from guilt, not as much in faith as in alcohol.
In the first major test of his priestly competence, the first man who asks for Toller’s advice, a talk, and calming words ends up killing himself in the first half of the movie. Michael, the intelligent, handsome young man who decided to end it all was married to pregnant Mary, played by Amanda Seyfried. The big dilemma Michael, a passionate ecologist and activist, lays before us is whether he should bring a child to a world that’s, as far as he can tell, on the verge of an ecological disaster. For some reason, both men regard this thought as deep, even though Mary clearly wants to keep the child, and is obviously way past her first trimester. The author of this text fails to fathom exactly how Toller and Michael matter when it comes to making this call.
In a grotesque funeral scene, Mary empties what looks like a vacuum bag over a toxic waste site. Some children from the church choir sing activist songs surrounded by banners, and the subdued, naturalistic direction emphasizes the humor, the cowardice, and the tragedy behind Michael’s death.
Michael was not planning on ending the life of a fetus, as it turns out, but rather the odds of him being the one to raise and support it. Here, Mary is first betrayed by a person she trusted the most, a man she relied on, someone who should have provided support. The second great betrayal will come from father Toller. Empty and miserable, this man shows an utter lack of direction when he falls head-on for an ideology of a clearly depressed individual who had just committed suicide.
At this point, two simultaneous plots unravel. Two possible outcomes lead to an unresolved, uncertain movie ending. Father Toller seems to disappear completely as an individual after Michael’s death – instead, he takes on Michael’s twofold role. One where he plans a terrorist attack using a bomb Mary found in the garage. And another, where he becomes ever closer to Mary, leading to sexual and spiritual attraction. This increasingly intense relationship is presented authentically and intimately, unlike Toller’s transformation into an eco-terrorist that mainly features underwhelming scenes of googling and reading newspaper clippings.
Both Toller and the audience are not dying to see the terrorist attack unfold because of their despair before the destruction of God’s creation. Rather, we are rattled by a perfectly written scene in a small American diner: one of humiliation, anger, and frustration before a superior enemy, a scene so familiar in Schrader’s male characters – Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, Wade Whitehouse and many others. Toller doesn’t seek a solution, he doesn’t plan on changing anything, or even inspiring change in others. This man is out for revenge and he’s out for blood. Anything to keep him from feeling helpless.
Contrary to expectations, the movie (and probably Toller’s temporary residence among the living) ends with a long, triumphant scene of lust, sensuality, and birth of a desire to delight in closeness and beauty. The beauty of a girl who keeps fighting despite ecological awareness and a vacuum bag of a late husband.
Andrea Stojanović was born in Belgrade in 1992. She is studying the English language at the Faculty of Philology and works as a content writer and a translator. She likes reading, watching and listening to stories, and is gladly shares her thoughts before they overmultiply and consume her in her sleep.
Translator: Ivana Tubić is 23 years old and was born in Belgrade. She is a English language graduate and she is currently studying for her master’s degree at the Faculty of Philology. In her spare time, she listens to pop music, works on drawings and engages in translation. A huge fan of Rihanna, and her life is colored in glitter and shades of coffee.