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Paul Schrader’s First Reformed Woke Me Up at 3 AM to Think About Its Ending

Spoiler alert: Paul Schrader’s First Reformed has a killer of an ending. It’s hard to talk about without spoiling it so if you haven’t seen it yet you probably should hold off reading about it here – you should, anyway.

It took me a while to catch up to First Reformed. Like so many other things, the death of my father disrupted my life to such a degree that I wasn’t sure what I could handle and what I couldn’t. I knew this film would be emotionally challenging because I knew what it dealt with. For me it’s something close to home: climate change.

First Reformed follows closely the inner struggle of its protagonist, Ethan Hawke as Reverend Toller. He is called to the home of a young couple; Mary, a pregnant wife (Amanda Seyfried) asks him to counsel her husband, who has become so twisted up in grief and despair about the future that he wants her to “kill” their baby.

Toller faces off with Michael (played by Philip Ettinger) to discuss what boils down to the eternal struggle between despair vs. hope. To Toller, this is to be expected now or any other time in history. But to Michael, this is different. What is going to happen to the world at the hands of the greedy and reckless capitalists is so bad that he can’t abide even bringing a child into this world.

Toller builds a relationship with Mary, in an attempt to offer comfort. He is unable to reach her husband, however, who is convinced that nothing can be done and that only big bold moves will be enough to pull the population out of its stupor to make them FINALLY SEE what is coming next.

So what’s coming next? As Roy Scranton says in his brilliant meditation on the state of things, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, “We’re fucked. The only questions are how soon and how badly.”

If you are one of the lucky ones who has researched what’s coming next, you too will be plagued by conflicting emotions of anger, despair, and fear. That happened to me in 2015. I was doing research for a book I was writing that takes place 100 years in the future. I wanted to know what scientists thought about what the world might look like. What would the world’s population be? What is the outlook for the effects of global warming?

All of this was before Trump took the presidency. The more I read, the worse it got. Scientists are freaked out about it but there doesn’t seem to be a way to get the message of panic across to a population distracted by other things. The thing is, people like Steve Bannon and Robert Mercer know what’s coming. That’s why they are taking such drastic measures to close the borders, to make America self-sufficient. They too have seen the future and they know what it will mean when large areas of the world are rendered uninhabitable, when millions of people begin to starve, flee their countries, and seek refuge in foreign lands. That won’t be us, our country is now saying. Those in positions of power do not plan to try to stop climate change.  Maybe they think it can’t be stopped; maybe it can’t. Maybe we’re too far gone to stop it now.

The scientists don’t know how high the sea will rise, or what rising temperatures will do to the animals that live there, how bad acidification will get, what kinds of storms, floods, and fires the future will bring, whether there will be a runaway greenhouse effect and in 50 years we won’t even be able to spend time outside in some parts of the world. We know we’re fucked. We just don’t how fucked. But the problem is so big, so overwhelming that no one really knows what to do about it. We simply live out our days as we always have, using energy that requires fossil fuel production, using Twitter/Facebook, using our phones. We want what we want and we want it now. We want to eat as much bacon as we want, buy Starbucks when we want, have air conditioning, gets bags at the grocery store. We don’t want to be denied anything because that is what we’ve been promised by the American dream: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — three hundred million American dreams.

Scranton writes:

“Every time you check your email, you’re heating up the planet. We do it every day. We can’t stop. We won’t stop. The problem with the People’s Climate March wasn’t really that it lacked a goal, or that it was distracting, superficial, and vacuous. The problem with the United Nations isn’t that the politicians there are ignorant, hidebound, self-interested, or corrupt. The problem with our response to climate change isn’t a problem with passing the right laws or finding the right price for carbon or changing people’s minds or raising awareness. Everybody already knows. The problem is that the problem is too big. The problem is that different people want different things. The problem is that nobody has real answers. The problem is that the problem is us.”

When Toller asks the film’s pivotal question, “Can God forgive us?” — maybe the question should be can we forgive ourselves? And I don’t know the answer to that. How do we forgive a species that has done what we’ve done to each other, to animals, to the natural world? How do we forgive the Holocaust? Slavery? Taking land from the Native Americans?

How to wake people up from their stupor? Remember what kind of world we’re living in. A man set himself on fire in Central Park to protest climate change. A mother orca carried her dead baby on her head for four straight days because she could not accept its death. We watched from our computers, staring at our screens, trying yet again for one more day to absorb all of the terrible things we inject on a daily basis. Where to even start?

That is part of what drives Toller in First Reformed towards the kind of action he is trying to summon the courage to take by the film’s end. For him, it’s a slow unwinding of the person he once was to the person that is almost exploding out of him, a truth he can no longer deny. He seems to be losing his mind, just like Michael lost his mind earlier in the film. Is he dying? Is he going insane?

Toller has now met the crossroads another of Schrader’s characters gets to — Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. This is the end of the line for two men who have fought the battle not to lose hope. One last brave act or one last act of futility?

Did anyone care that a man lit himself on fire in April? Most of us spent a few minutes feeling bad about it and then moved on. Did Travis Bickle change anything? Or did he just erase himself because he could not go on another day?

First Reformed is all of these things in a movie. It really is. Though it takes on this journey deceptively. The action unfolds without much fanfare. A small town, an old church, a reverend. Ethan Hawke has never been better and Amanda Seyfried is a good supporting character in a film that isn’t really very much about her. She’s a symbol more than anything (and that is probably going to irritate more than a few people) but she’s not that far off from Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver in so much as she becomes one person who can reach someone who is unreachable. Schrader’s directing is sharp, deliberate, lean.

The film works as a rumination on our constant struggle with who we actually are vs. who we want to be. On the fringes of this, the Church works as a kind of microcosm out of place and out of time, like the film, which bobs in and out of surrealism and expressionism. Not to sound TOO pretentious here, but Schrader is operating on a level of metaphor that is hard to fully grasp until the film’s final moments, which is why it woke me up at 3 a.m.. I thought I got the ending but I hadn’t.

Spoiler: First Reformed has an ending that is so abrupt and sudden I didn’t know what to think of it at first. Why did he do what he did? I knew why he put on the vest, maybe even why he wrapped himself in barbed wire — like the crown of thorns. He was manifesting the suffering of Jesus at the hands of those who know not what they do. But he doesn’t. In the end he makes a conscience choice not to. Instead, he runs into the arms of Mary, and gives in to something he has been denying himself. Earlier, he’s eating fish and says “such simple pleasures” and later he and Mary are hungrily kissing each other: he with his chest bleeding and she with a baby in her stomach. Yes, I know her name is Mary. Yes, I know her baby has no father. I may not be religious but I’m not stupid either.

Then it all goes to black. It just goes black. I turned off the TV and went to bed, not really thinking much about it but recognizing it as a very good film and one I thought was necessary for everyone to watch and absorb, however difficult it is to watch in those final moments. But then I woke up at 3 a.m. and I realized why he did it — why he reached for Mary, why he turned away from his one brave act, why he made his one final stand against corruption. He did it because he wrestled with despair and hope and hope won out. Love won out. Lust — human lust, the pleasures of the flesh — overtook him and all at once he was fully human. End Spoiler.

And so it was in that moment that I fell desperately in love with First Reformed. Because it came so close to the edge but then chose a different message to deliver. As Scranton puts it:

“And so it will be tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that. If, like a god, we could see every photon’s arc and each neutrino’s wobble, we would see past and future laid out in a single mathematical design: infinite, determined, perfect. We will never achieve such knowledge. We only ever see the pattern dimly and in flashes. Yet we can practice and cultivate understanding the intimate, necessary connection of all things to each other. Light comes to us from millions of miles away, through the emptiness of space, and we can see it. Its heat warms our skin. Pleasure arises in feeling ourselves attuned and connected to such sublime power. The only practical question remaining is whether we, existing as we are, will be that light.”

First Reformed is one of the highest achievements in screenwriting of the year by far, and one of 2018’s very best.