I wish I could write about every film I watch, but sometimes they take a while to translate from pictures in light, to filter through thoughts and affects, before becoming written language on a page. Other times, however, there is an urgency to use words to describe the impact of the cinematic experience, and there is no judgement of good and bad to correspond to how these effects play out.
When First Reformed cuts to black after its closing shot, its sound design rupturing and striking in the stark contrast between the song that is combined with the final image and the following noise that accompanies the credits, I think: What was that film? How can I use language to tease out how that film made me feel and what it has given me in thought?
The film opens on the eponymous First Reformed church in low light that slowly rises. Static shots give us views of closer details, areas of the building, fragments of the architecture, and two large doors that murmur and creak in their environment. We are presented with the building that houses a multitude of beings: does faith reside here? Does God? Does prayer? Does musical sound? As a stop on the Underground Railway, Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) tells a group of school children, slaves would seek refuge and hide in the church. He shows them the trapdoor the slaves would have used, how it would have been hidden under a pew, and how it still retains its original wooden planks. Certainly a large and meaningful part of the film is located in this church. We are told early on that the First Reformed church has stood in its upstate New York town of Snowbridge for 250 years, and the upcoming celebration for its birthday in part drives the film’s narrative. It is made of white wooden slats, it is not large and grand and spoken through with money like the town’s other church, Abundant Life. It is dignified and still and the film takes this stillness and quietness and breathes it in its own architecture of camera and framing, sometimes solemn but charged with energy.
Toller is melancholic, the bereavement of his son always brewing somewhere within him, the son he encouraged to fight in the Iraq war, an “unjust” war which he was to never return from. We learn of this poignant moment of Toller’s past early on as he speaks to Michael (Philip Ettinger), at Michael’s wife Mary’s request, who is a regular at First Reformed. Mary (Amanda Seyfriend) organises this meeting because she is worried about her husband, especially since she has become pregnant and he has expressed grave doubts about bringing a child into a world that seems environmentally doomed. The conversation between the two men is intense, full of precious, scary questions and assertions as Michael describes the wounds of the earth and through these descriptions invites us to mourn with him. But though the dialogue appears to construct some intimacies between the men, Schrader often keeps them separate in the frame, a technique of alienation that is noticeably continued and applied to all characters throughout the film. Shot-reverse-shot is never employed, and though a medium shot containing two characters in dialogue does occur several times, it is noticeable that during meetings figures are often kept singular and closely bound by the squared frame that boxes subjects in during close-ups. Is this a way to (aesthetically) consider being disconnected – from others? From the planet? From God? Toller perhaps can tick all these boxes, and with him, me too.
In a bizarre moment which aesthetically ruptures the film’s fabric (but to no negative effect), we travel across the earth in moments of its beauty before seeping into landscapes of horror and decay, from luscious colours of plant-life to the deadened whites of mounds of plastics. It is painful and jarring, it works to get to me, ruptures ideas of being in this world that might come with ease, help me to think about a “larger picture”. I feel helpless.