The premise of this blog post is pretty straightforward, folks.
Kelli and Emily both saw First Reformed, the new A24 joint written and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Paul Schrader. Now they have feelings about environmentalism, religion, self-loathing, and Pepto-Bismol that they need to work through. Come along on their journey.
Kelli: First Reformed is the new film from director and writer Paul Schrader. The film is centered around Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), a Reverend at the First Reformed Church, a 250-year-old institution located in a small New York town. The film follows Toller as he begins an "experiment" to record all of his darkest thoughts in a journal he vows to later destroy. Early on, he meets Mary (Amanda Seyfriend) and Michael (Philip Ettinger), a married couple expecting their first child who also happen to be radical environmentalists. It took me way too long to write that, because the movie is about way more than that. But on a very basic level, that is the plot.
Emily: Yes that is the plot. Basically, if you watch the trailer. That's what you're gonna see. So good work, Kelli.
Kelli: So, first, I think it's important to note that Schrader has been around for quite some time. He's primarily a screenwriter, and he's co-written four different Martin Scorsese films -- including Taxi Driver.
Emily: Yeah I was gonna ask how familiar you are with his work. Because I am not. Never have I ever seen Taxi Driver. I know, I'm terrible.
Kelli: HOW DARE.
Emily: Look, I want to see it.
Kelli: To be totally honest, I only watched it for the first time about a year ago. It's a very uncomfortable movie.
Emily: Is it at all similar to this movie? Thematically or stylistically?
Kelli: It's EXTREMELY similar to this movie, though I'd say more thematically than stylistically. Although the narration is a key component that the films share - in Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle (Robert Deniro) narrates sections much like the parts of First Reformed where Toller is reading from his journal. But both films deal with a very similar build-up - the planting of an idea in a troubled main character's mind, and an escalation towards an act of terrorism.
Emily: Interesting. So we gonna spoil the movie guys, just FYI.
Kelli: Yeah sorry. So, one thing I think is interesting about the Taxi Driver comparison is that Schrader has written two totally different characters who take a very similar emotional journey. In Taxi Driver, Bickle is a terrible person from the beginning, and his actions by the end seem inevitable - but here, Toller starts out with good intentions. What did you think of him as a character? And what he ends up doing?
Emily: Well so there's a lot to unpack with Toller, which I think is one of the major strengths of this movie. He has a lot of guilt, and he feels in his heart of hearts that he is a bad person because of what happened to his son. Basically, his son went off to war and died, and Toller feels responsible because he encouraged him to go. And this self-loathing permeates every part of Toller's existence. He basically lives off of his self-hatred, which manifests itself in affairs, drinking, and generally not taking care of himself (he is very sick). There are a lot of moments in the movie that made me cringe. But NOTHING was as horrible as watching him chug a glass of whiskey and Pepto-Bismol. Like lord have mercy, I will have nightmares about that.
Kelli: UGHHHHHHHH. Horrible!!!!!! But yeah, I agree that Toller is a huge strength of the film - if he wasn't a good character, this movie wouldn't work at all. Plus, Ethan Hawke is giving a really great performance here. I'm loving the Hawkissance. Hawkeissance?
Emily: Yes, it's like, okay, I get you, Ethan Hawke. I get you. There are many other players in this movie, but a loooot of this film relies on Hawke.
Kelli: And Hawke by himself, alone in rooms, brooding while drinking. Which can get boring real fast, but he pulls it off. You can see the discomfort in the way he moves. At every moment I was like, is he gonna fall over now?
Emily: Right. There's a tenseness to his performance. An intensity.
Kelli: Basically, what I'm saying is: I'd hit it.
Emily: No, Kelli. No.
Kelli: Sorry. Just kidding.
Emily: I don't think that's what you're supposed to get from this movie.
Kelli: No, definitely not.
Emily: Like, GOOD LORD. Literally. GOOD LORD.
Emily: That's the title of this blog: "Good Lord: A First Reformed Story."
Kelli: Like Solo. I love it. Okay, so should we talk about the environment?
Emily: Yes, like, environmentalism? Or the setting of the movie?
Kelli: The ERF. I want to talk about the erf.
Emily: DA ERF. Okay. So near the beginning of this movie, Toller sits down with a man (Michael) who is dealing with suicidal feelings and paranoia about the environment. And his wife (Mary AKA BIG EYES MCGEE) is preggo.
Kelli: Big Eyes Little Nose McGee.
Emily: So Michael's basically like, "what business do I have bringing a child in this world when we're going to explode in 30 years?" Which TBH it's probably going to be more like next month because Donald Trump is on a roll.
Kelli: Yeah, he shouldn't have even been worried because things are going to blow up before that kid even gets born.
Emily: Which sucks for Big Eyes because she has to live out her last days pregnant for NOTHING.
Kelli: Bummer city.
Emily: But anyway. Back to the movie. So long story short, Michael shoots himself in the head, and Ethan Hawke basically ends up picking up dude's torch, in more ways than one. I'm sorry if I'm doing a bad job explaining this.
Kelli: No, you're doing great!
Emily: Basically Toller gets really into environmentalism and also "taking care" of this newly widowed pregnant big eyed lady.
Kelli: We should also note that Toller is the one who finds Michael.
Emily: Yes, on purpose. Dude texts him like "meet me in the woods," ecause he WANTS Toller to find him dead. What do you think that was all about?
Kelli: I think after they had that long chat, maybe Michael sensed that Toller was having doubts about the good of humanity. Because basically, the two of them have this really long conversation where Toller tries to convince Michael that the world is 'worth it,' and he fails pretty badly. So not only does he feel the guilt about his son, but he feels guilt that he failed to help this young man - roughly the age his son would be now. And he reveals what happened to his son TO Michael, who I think realizes the connection.
Emily: Right. SO MANY LEVELS.
Kelli: And uses it in some sick way as an advantage. And THEN he specifically leaves his funeral requests for Toller. And they have to go out to a toxic waste dump and sing some shitty Neil Young song and scatter his ashes into the sludge, which, another quick thing I appreciated about this movie - those very dark moments of humor, like the teen church choir singing "Who's Gonna Stand Up (and Save the Earth)."
Emily: Not the church, that's for sure. So should we get into the corrupt church stuff now?
Emily: I guess what I'm saying is... is environmentalism taking the place of religion for Toller once he starts to see the church as corrupt/not having the answers? There is so much to this movie.
Kelli: You know, that's a good question. I was wondering about that, about whether Toller becoming so invested in this particular cause was because he actually believes in it, or because he feels indebted to Michael.
Emily: I think it started as feeling indebted but then when he saw how wrapped up the church was with all this corrupt shit, it became more personal because he had dedicated his life to the church because he felt like it was the right thing to do. And it wasn't fixing anything. It didn't make him a better person. It didn't save anyone.
Kelli: Right. And I guess the last person it failed to save was Michael. So, to enter major spoiler territory.
Emily: Yes, let's get into it.
Kelli: When Mary (big eyes) is going through Michael's things, she finds a suicide vest that he was apparently planning to use.
Emily: Right, this is before Michael dies.
Kelli: Either way, she finds it and calls Toller over because she doesn't know what to do. So he takes the vest back to his place to dispose of it, but he ends up hanging onto it.
Emily: Of course. Why waste a perfectly good suicide vest? That's what I always say.
Kelli: Same. So, as things escalate and Toller becomes more invested in the environmental cause, the church First Reformed is also amping up for their 250th anniversary, which is gonna be this huge celebratory event about how great they are.
Emily: Well, also First Reformed is this important historical church.
Kelli: When Toller starts doing research and finds out about the corruption in the church and the fact that some of their biggest donors are also contributing to mass pollution, a PLAN begins to take shape, especially because he's 99% sure he has stomach cancer. We become certain of the plan when Mary says she's going to come to the celebration and he literally tells her, "I don't want you to come. Don't come."
Emily: And she doesn't listen. Dammit, Big Eyes!
Kelli: So, yeah - on the day of the event, we see him suiting up in his bomb jacket, and he looks out the window just in time to see her walking up to the church. (His home is conveniently located right next door - sort of an extension?) At which point he's like, 'FUCK!!!!! NOW I CAN'T KILL EVERYONE!' Never mind all of the other innocent people who just happened to be there too. And that's when things get kinda crazy. Crazier than they already were. So, I want to ask you: what do you make of this ending?
Emily: Oh right. Leave that one to me. So the ending is a big head scratcher.
Emily: Like seriously when the screen went black, I thought, "oh shit did the projector mess up?" But no it was the end of the movie.
Kelli: I knew somehow. Like the moment it went black I was like, oh shit, Schrader just went and did that.
Emily: I also wondered if it was hurting Big Eyes to be making out with Toller while he had barbed wire wrapped around him.
Emily: Oh, because by the way, when he sees she came to the event anyway, Toller's plan B is "Ok, let me just wrap myself in barbed wire." Because of course.
Kelli: And then I'll drink drain cleaner. Chekhov's drain cleaner.
Emily: Right. At least he didn't try to mix it with Pepto-Bismol. But back to the ending. I'm not sure what to make of it. I don't know why the ending felt so abrupt because I don't know what I need to know that I didn't see. But also... is it supposed to be happy in some weird way? I don't know.
Kelli: Yeah. So Big Eyes walks into his house and he drops the drain cleaner right before drinking it, and they make out instead, even though he still has barbed wire on under his church thingee. Music swells, and then while they make out it cuts off. So the question is: was he hallucinating on drain cleaner? Is this what he secretly hoped would happen in the moments before his grisly poison death? Or was it real?
Emily: We have to assume Big Eyes stabs herself on the barbed wire, dies, and then he drinks drain cleaner and dies. I feel like... it doesn't really matter if it was real or imaginary because he's going to die anyway, and his attempts to be a better person and save the world were futile.
Kelli: It matters for Mary though!
Emily: Yeah, well... it's not her story.
Kelli: True true true. It did seem like a sort of hopeful ending, but it was also really eery with the way it cut to black. Or not hopeful, but happy. Joyous. There was definitely something like, divine about the way that last scene was shot. It seemed like they were both experiencing ecstasy, even through the pain he was obviously feeling.
Emily: Right. It's joyous but hopeless.
Kelli: And it can be cut short at ANY MOMENT. When you LEAST EXPECT IT.
Emily: Wow, so smart, Kelli.
Kelli: I solved the movie. You're welcome, everyone.
Emily: Thanks. Real quick, I want to back up and talk about the woman Toller was having an affair with. The church choir woman. Esther. We learn a lot about Toller through her character, and I think it's interesting that both women in his life, Mary and Esther, have very symbolic biblical names, although I don't know enough about the Bible to know what to make of the name Esther.
Kelli: Yeah, that relationship was so sad. This lady is SO WORRIED about him. She's constantly asking him like, did you go to the doctor, are you okay, you look unwell.
Emily: One of my favorite moments of the movie is when she's trying to check up on him and he completely shoots her down. I forget exactly what he says.
Kelli: He says, "I despise you."
Emily: Yes. Okay. I was like damn.
Kelli: Yeah, that was cold as hell.
Emily: What he's really saying is he despises himself though.
Kelli: Yeah, but he was more than willing to blow her up.
Emily: He was willing to blow himself up. Because he hates himself.
Kelli: Totally. I guess he probably doesn't respect her because she loves him, and he's like - why would you ever love me? You're an idiot.
Emily: Exactly. I just found that relationship very telling, because it was probably the closest thing he had to a healthy relationship with another human being. And he completely rejects it.
Kelli: Yes. And I appreciate the fact that again, every relationship and every choice in this movie is very deliberately used to show us what kind of person he is.
Emily: Yep. So what would you rate this, Kelli? Are we rating it?
Kelli: Sure! I gave it a 4/5 on letterboxed, but I might go up to 4.5. I really enjoyed this movie.
Emily: I did the exact same.
Kelli: I feel like maybe I didn't quite convey that - I was completely riveted.
Emily: It's something I enjoy more the more I think about it. Afterwards I was like "huh," but then on the drive home I got kind of emotional about it.
Kelli: Yeah, it sort of hits you later I think. I look forward to watching it again, because it's also very beautifully shot.
Emily: I look forward to watching Taxi Driver (LOL).
Kelli: It's probably a sin that I liked this movie better than Taxi Driver. Will God forgive me?
Emily: I mean, probably yeah. Any last thoughts?
Kelli: No, that's it. Thanks for doing this with me!
Emily: Thank you! It was great getting to discuss this with someone else. I know Ben (my husband, y'all) loved this movie too, and he'll be sad he missed out on this chat.
Kelli: Awww! Well if he has any comments, he should write in. WE CAN DISCUSS THEM ON THE POD.
Emily: True! Write in, Ben (or anyone)! Let us know your thoughts!
THE END. Have a blessed day.