The academy award nominated ‘First Reformed’ directed by Paul Schrader and featuring Ethan Hawke as lead and Amanda Seyfield, Victoria Hill, Phillip Ettinger and Cedric Kyles in supporting roles playing their parts very convincingly, takes inspiration from classic and controversial movies made before it. It has been mentioned that Toller like the young priest in Robert Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest” was unwell, alcoholic and kept a diary. Furthermore, the story bears similarities with Ingmar Bergman’s “Winter Light” where a pastor was approached to help a parishioner with a fear of nuclear annihilation and in the process, the former realizes his own self doubts about his religion much like Toller’s question, “Will God Forgive Us?”- a question that was originally voiced by Michael which Toller then adopts as he realizes the validity of Michael’s activism and carries on the movement.
The film moves at a slow pace for the first 40 minutes, and then picks up pace as it reaches its climax. The protagonist Toller is trying to save the world even while he is destroying his own body. It was evident Toller could not bear to face the realities of his diseased self, as is evident with him looking at his distorted teeth for a few seconds and then closing his mouth only to repeat that again until he shuts off the light and looks at his reflection in the dark. Schrader has evidently been inspired by the likes of Andrei Tarkovsky while filming the levitation scene as he mentioned in an interview, “I knew at the end I wanted to jump out of the world, and I thought I should prefigure that in some way, and I just kept thinking, ‘What would Tarkovsky do?’ Well, he’d levitate! That’s his go-to position when people get horizontal.”
The film’s preoccupation with blood begins quite early and Toller is drawn into this discourse as he holds the wine during the ceremony, significantly representing Christ’s blood. After a few scenes one notices him urinating blood and later, one notices the camera’s fixture on the Pepto-Bismol mixed with alcohol producing a reddish-pink grotesque texture in the glass. He is also the one who first notices the bloody body of Mary’s husband and a soundtrack of “Are You Washed in Blood” sung by the choir looking at a single listener- Toller. Furthermore, upon seeing Mary at the ceremony, he binds the barbed wire around his body producing blood and changes his costume to a white cover which produces imprints of the blood beginning to replicate Jesus’s supposed burial shroud.
Many have thought of the name ‘Mary’ being significant along with her being pregnant implied Jesus’ mother. However one might also see her as Mary Magdalene, the first person to view Jesus once he was resurrected. Furthermore, in spite of him warning Mary to not come for the event, she arrives much like Magdalene who refused to leave Jesus even after he was dead and was the first to view the resurrection of Christ. Mary was a constant presence throughout the film in Toller’s change of mind and there is a stark difference between the ways Toller treats the only two women he has any relationship with in the film. Mary is the one stable identity as the men around her undergo changes or even disappear. Magdalene, who anointed and wiped Christ’s feet with her open hair and Mary’s (who always let her hair down) hair which enveloped Toller’s face, imply the erotic in both cases.
Esher was a portrayal and a constant reminder of what he lacked and thereby his failures and all the things about himself that he ignored and Toller was not ready to accept his flaws and hence reacted in an unnecessary violent way to her. On the other hand, Mary was a portrayal of the world he had ignored and what he could be which he seemed to be more favourable to accepting. Toller almost tries to become a Christ like savior figure as he thinks that killing himself along with the ones endorsing climate pollution (those present in the church) would solve the problem. Almost like Jesus, he tries to die for the sins of others with the only difference being he decides to take some of the ones responsible with him.
What did he expect when he kills a significant member of the company? Things would change? A more rigorous member would not take his place? Or did he feel that just like him, there would be someone else to carry on the movement which ‘reformed’ him? The film ends in an ‘Ordet’ style as with the resurrection of a woman by her brother-in-law claiming to be Jesus Christ, who was taken to be an insane person till that moment. The film ends with the woman passionately kissing her husband. A reversal is followed here with Toller being the Christ figure with similar frustrations of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and being the one advised psychological help and the Christ figure who is resurrected.