First Reformed (2017)
June 9, 2018 7:31 PM - Subscribe

A priest of a small congregation in upstate New York grapples with mounting despair brought on by tragedy, worldly concerns and a tormented past.

Rotten Tomatoes review.

Can anybody share their interpretation of the ending?
posted by gemutlichkeit (2 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
I wouldn't say I'm a HUGE Peter Travers fan, but I've enjoyed enough of his screenplays and directed films that I wanted to give it a shot. It was time well spent. Just watching a movie about adults doing adult things, thinking about adult problems, etc., and watching a well-crafted story unfold was...nice? Despite the downer material and tone.
I really dislike Ethan Hawke's acting persona, so watching him being miserable and suffering was kind of a bonus, ranking up there with that movie where Tom Cruise dies about 400 times!

I liked all the performances, Seyfried is a wonderful actor. Cedric and Hawke were both great.

On the negative side, I was a little taken out of the movie by the "special effects" scene of transcendent physical connection. My husband felt it was earned, and I guess I do, too, in retrospect. But at the time, it was jarring.
The other bummer was just -ugh- really? The colorless, life-draining "appropriate woman" was Hawke's age, and the vital, life-giving "love object" was young and fertile. That kind of shorthand seems a little lazy and misogynistic.

About the ending:
This is a mercy. In his last moments, rather than suffering more pain, Toller has a vivid hallucination where he is able to express his passion and experiences a spiritual/physical connection. The suicide is successful.
posted by hiker U. at 7:39 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


Hey, it's your friendly neighborhood burned-out ex-pastor here.

I really liked it. I've never seen anything that nailed the sense of being an earnest, but melancholy, small church pastor bumping up against the big, rich, church with its powerful connections. It's a disease of American Christianity that we tend to see size and money as indicators of success, and while Toller has his own demons to wrestle with, I've been in similar situations too often not to sympathize with his frustration that greedy, rich people are calling the shots and get upset with him for something as minor as honoring the wishes of an environmental activist at the man's own funeral. Large churches see their size as proof of their success, and they win all the arguments about which direction to go, even if their size is a result of selling out and ignoring vital aspects of the path of Jesus.

I also know too many pastors who have gotten caught up in rescue fantasies and didn't maintain appropriate boundaries. An attractive, pregnant widow is the quintessential temptation for male pastors. How can you not help her, you think, as the lines get blurrier and blurrier? I haven't been there, but I've been adjacent to it. I recognize that, too. A seminary friend of mine lost his ministry after an affair with a pregnant, single mom that started off as a well-intentioned effort to help her. Neither intended it to become romantic, but when his rescue fantasy combines with her deep need for affirmation, the combination is powerful. Unlike hiker U., I didn't read that as "life-giving." I read it entirely as his failure to maintain appropriate boundaries--a too common story in pastoral work where you are but into high intensity situations having had a class or two in pastoral counseling, but not nearly the entire toolkit of a professional therapist.

As it is, it's a strong film, my favorite of the year so far. I would have rather had a more grounded and realistic final act, and I really think it would have been more powerful to let the end with Toller basically witnessing big church bombast and politically-savvy triumphalism taking over the celebration of First Reformed's 250th anniversary, as his own little territory is taken over by the televised Jesus show, leaving him sidelined--and maybe also leaving him aware that he has been unfair to Mary and betrayed his commission by letting his pastoral relationship become romantic with a vulnerable widow. Pastor Jeffers is wrong about a lot of things, but not wrong that he needs to take better care of himself and set clearer boundaries.

I know folks like Pastor Jeffers, too. He's not wrong that Toller is all Garden of Gethsemane and no Mountain of Transfiguration. Maybe his Christianity isn't any more out of balance than Toller's is. But I tend to be mainly garden, too, so Toller's a character I can identify with too well.

I didn't read the ending as fantasy, although I understand why someone would. Toller's brand of faith recognizes the importance of sacrifice for the greater good, and I think Michael's talk of environmental martyrs planted a thought that grew. Especially given Toller's poor health, and his frustration with the shallow fripperies of Abundant Life, he was ready to make a statement. (This does happen sometimes, in a way. It's only been four years since the self-immolation of Charles Moore.) But then he saw Mary and couldn't go through with it. So instead he grabs barbed wire, wrapping it around himself in a way that is reminiscent of Jesus' crown of thorns, but also the ancient monastic practice of self-flagellation to tame carnal temptations and focus on the life of the spirit. Thomas Merton, who Toller admires so much--as do I--was a monk (although not the self-flagellating kind) and perhaps Toller is ready to take extreme action turn from sexual temptation and identify with the ancient monks. In Christian history, monasticism was in many ways a response to the end of martyrdom. Once Christianity was legitimized and safe to practice in the West and there were no more martyrs to look to as exemplars of passionate, self-sacrificing faith, the institution of martyrdom arose, with its mortifications of the flesh, some simple (fasting, abstinence, solitude) some extreme (hair shirts, self-flagellation, living on top of pillars). I tend to read the last part of First Reformed as Toller responding to his sexual temptation and his unheard pleas to care for the environment by seeking first martyrdom, then extreme monasticism, and then, when faced with Mary, giving in to the inappropriate relationship he knows he shouldn't have. It's another kind of extreme act. It's no less a betrayal than a therapist becoming romantically involved with a vulnerable client. If she hadn't showed up to the reconsecration, he would have died a martyr. Failing that, he tried to live as a monk. But then, she's there. And his reverence for Christ and his immersion in monastic writing isn't enough to keep him out of her arms.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 6:53 AM on June 11 [7 favorites]


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