The film as a whole is an exploration of the possibility of self-annihilation in a world that both insists on our full-blown selfhood, and then promises to annihilate it for us.
Toller’s proclaimed spiritual model is Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who gave an account of his life in the best-selling The Seven Storey Mountain (1948). Merton was deeply ambivalent about his work: writing and then receiving masses of fan mail for a 600-page autobiography is not obviously conducive to the ascetic practice of unselfing for God. Merton’s autobiography drew comparisons to St. Augustine’s fourth-century Confessions, an anguished recounting of Augustine’s struggle toward conversion and true religious faith. He avows his commitment to God and yet finds himself endlessly deferring true devotion; he recalls asking God for “chastity and continence, but not yet.” The Confessions are an exercise in self-torture: Augustine aspires to brutal self-transparency yet finds that he cannot trust his own mind; he penetrates and recoils from every memory; he is repulsed by his insistent human desires; and then, in the final books, Augustine makes a sudden formal and topical turn, shifting his attention away from himself and toward an analysis of time and an interpretation of Genesis.
The Confessions are often said to have inaugurated the modern conception of selfhood, our new endless interiority. Augustine was also one of the first exegetes of the Bible to take the story of Adam and Eve literally, and thus to place the concept of original sin at the center of the Christian world order. To be a self in the Augustinian tradition is to be engaged in the effort not to be one, and, paradoxically, the method for becoming less of a self is pursued through the relentless exploration and articulation of that very self. Whether to a diary or to a therapist or to God, confession has no proper limit. What Christianity provides is thus not just a picture of the self, but a set of practices or exercises, a style of experience, a genre even. A self is not just something you are but is something you do, to no end.
We may be inheritors of Augustine’s suffering self, but in the contemporary world our exercises in selfhood are meant to be productive, which is to say profitable. Herbert Marcuse claimed that productivity was the existential attitude of industrial civilization. In such a world, the best kind of self is one bursting with marketable traits and interests and capacities and accomplishments. By contrast, and for this reason, Toller’s experiment must be utterly unproductive, must culminate in nothing, since what he wants, or claims to want, is to be utterly without a self. For Toller, this means not only that he must be without ego or attachments, but also without happiness, without pastimes, ideally without any specificity at all. In the film’s first dialogue, Toller turns down an offer of help; he winces as he smiles to colleagues; his home is barren, and every conversation is a struggle, since joy and comfort and company would confirm the reality, perhaps also the attractiveness, of precisely what he is desperate to exercise right out of existence.
The trap, of course, is that there is no exercise or experiment in unselfing that does not risk amplifying the self even further, as though the arduousness of the effort to snuff it out only testified to its power and reach. Toller’s entire existence is coiled in this impossibility, and he is wrecked by the knowledge of it. He will eventually break under this pressure, convulsing the very form of the film itself.
Interrupting Toller’s regimen of confession and banal church maintenance (the women’s bathroom is leaking), Mary (Amanda Seyfried) knocks on the reverend’s door. Wide-eyed and earnest, Mary asks Toller to speak to her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael is an environmental activist just granted compassionate release from a Canadian prison, in light of Mary’s new pregnancy. Michael thinks they should abort the fetus because he does not believe children should be brought into this world. Toller recommends they see a counselor at Abundant Life, the slick megachurch that finances Toller’s shabby First Reformed, but Michael declines, saying they’re more a corporation than a church.
At their house, Mary leaves the men to speak in Michael’s small office, its walls plastered with statistics and newspaper clippings and photos of assassinated activists; his screensaver clocks the rise of global temperatures each year; his desktop picture is that starving polar bear who wears its own skin like a heavy wet coat. Michael tells Toller that in 2050, his would-be child — a daughter, he says, for the sake of argument — will be 33. “Can you imagine what the world will be like then?” Toller chuckles as though it was a rhetorical question, but it isn’t. Michael knows precisely what it will be like: the rising sea levels, the heat, the mass migration, the diseases, the panic. He describes the world in 2050 in scientifically verified detail, citing statistics we have all heard. He says that after a certain level of climate change is reached, “everything moves very quickly.” He asks Toller to picture his little girl, full of hope, looking him in the eyes and telling him, “You knew this all along.” Toller tries to contextualize Michael’s distress: we humans have never not known despair; the dark night of the soul is nothing new. Toller asks if Michael has thought of harming himself, to which Michael responds, “No, I’m not worried about myself,” and then asks, “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?”
Schrader films the conversation in slow and simple shot reverse-shot, but with each character held squarely in the middle of the cramped frame (the film is shot in Academy ratio), as though each man were enclosed in a world of his own. Eventually the camera settles close and straight on Toller’s face, moving in just slightly as his voice-over returns: Toller observes that the conversation went back and forth like this, point counter-point; that he felt like Jacob wrestling with the angel all night; that it was exhilarating.
What does it mean for Michael to know what he knows? That is, to know that this earth is ravaged, that we haven’t stopped ravaging it, and that we and it and everything alive will cease to be? This is not the familiar existential problem of death and the specter of nihilism that hovers around it. Michael’s problem is geologic, its scale is cosmic. He is committed to living up to this, to knowing all of this viscerally, and he allows its massiveness to shape his daily practice. His activism and attention, his wish not to have a child (if that were his decision to make), his prison time; this is how he lives this knowledge; these are his exercises. Michael speaks about the future “unlivability,” and yet his weak smile and bloodshot eyes and the whiskey bottle ready at his desk signal that he is already there. Life is already unlivable. Michael is shattered. Toller is exhilarated.
That night Toller will write in his journal: How often we ask for genuine experience when all we want is emotion.
From here, everything moves very quickly. Michael cancels their next appointment. We watch as Toller hugs his toilet bowl and retches, symptoms erupting from unknown ailments. Mary finds a suicide bomb vest in their garage. Shortly after this, Toller agrees to talk to Michael in a park, and comes upon him face down in the woods with half his head blown off, the thick spray of red on snow the film’s first true color.
Now Toller’s exercises begin to change. He presides over Michael’s funeral, staged at a toxic waste site with a youth choir singing Neil Young’s “Who’s Going to Stand Up?” in matching Abundant Life jackets. He stays up late on Michael’s computer, eyes wide as he learns that Balq Energies, one of the main financial backers of Abundant Life, is also one of the world’s worst pollutants. He spends a lot of time with Mary: he sits tensely on her couch and rides Michael’s bike with her, their smiling faces shot from below; Toller notes in voice-over that he has not ridden a bike for 20 years and is afraid he might fall; he also marvels at the “simple curative power of exercise,” fully unable to admit to its pleasure (one of a number of moments that indicate that while Toller is humorless, the film is not). When Mary tells him that she will be moving away to live with her sister, Schrader’s otherwise static camera pans to follow them, Toller’s voice squeaking in response: “Oh really?” In Mary’s dark living room, they hold hands and pray. He even begins to ask his church colleagues Michael’s question: “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?”
Schrader has described this development as Toller’s catching Michael’s “virus,” “the virus of suicidal glory.” This makes it seem as though Toller were wholly passive, transformed through sheer proximity. But Toller is active, eager, and what he pursues is not just martyrdom in general but Michael’s life, its particular patterns. There is a lure to that life: Michael was passionate and committed; he cared about the earth; his life had a purpose; and he had Mary, whose company promises the domestic creaturely pleasures that Toller cannot even admit to wanting.
So Toller studies Michael’s bomb-braided vest, and he sees something he could really do, something righteous and truly self-destructive, something Christ-like. When he zips himself into the vest, he stands taller and taps his heels together, an ex-military man.
As Toller pivots toward this new project, the film’s style tracks this shift, absorbing his increasingly delirious energy into its very form. There is no music in the film’s first half, but now a low droning churns around Toller, first as he looks at the vest, then as he drives around town at night, stalking Balq executives. Until this midpoint, the palette has been drained, about as close to black and white as a color film can get. Toller’s clerical garments lock him into the stark interior of his Dutch colonial church, the church in turn blending in with the white winter sky. Thus far the only thing that brings color into this world is blood: from Michael’s head, in Toller’s urine, bubbling into a vial. But with Toller’s transformation comes new color. One evening, after Toller recites Revelations 11:18 about destroying the destroyers of the earth, Mary arrives at his house. She has had an anxiety attack. She says that sometimes, to calm her down, she and Michael would smoke a joint and lie on top of each other, breathing in sync; they called it the Magical Mystery Tour. Toller offers himself in Michael’s place. They move to the middle of his spare room, where Toller lies on his back and Mary crawls onto him, spreading her legs over his legs, her hands over his palms, and they begin to breathe together. Then they begin to levitate.
As the camera moves around their pressed bodies, the surroundings of the apartment give way to a galaxy, which then gives way to all the splendor of the natural world: they glide over mountains, over the ocean, over so much color. The scene is exhilarating. And it is corny, but then so are human fantasies, and so are movies. But then the saturated beauty gives way to a wasteland: tar sands and clear-cutting and masses of garbage. While Mary remains face down, Toller peeks out from under her hair like a child terrified by his own visions yet unable to look away.
The film’s other great formal shift happens in its already famous final scene. After abandoning his decision to blow himself up at his church’s 250th anniversary ceremony, Toller replaces the vest he had donned with barbed wire, wrapping it tightly around his chest as he gasps at the sight of himself in the mirror. It is a horrifying image, his flesh pierced with the rusted steel. It is also like the Magical Mystery Tour, corny, conventional even, so literal in its imitation of Christ. But again, religious experience is conventional, its intelligibility — even its ecstatic unintelligibility — depends on there being such ready exercises and iconography. Toller is about to drink a glass of Drano when Mary arrives — bathed in golden light like an apparition — and says his first name for the first time, “Ernst.” The camera follows Toller as he charges toward her, wraps her in his arms, and kisses her, the camera now whirling round and round and round them, the hymnal music rising and rising, before cutting us abruptly out to black, where the growling noise returns.
Because the scene is so incongruent both formally and narratively, the viewer is tasked with finding a way to fit it into the whole. Does the kiss really happen or is this Toller’s fantasy? Does this mean that what Toller ultimately wants is not to give himself to God but rather to indulge in the sensual comforts of a good young mother named Mary? And isn’t it a little much to end a film as austere as this with a swirling Hollywood kiss? But perhaps the “real versus fantasy” alternative binds us too restrictively to questions of plot and psychology. The film is, after all, already laden with surreal disruptions of the ordinary narrative world: apart from the Magic Mystery Tour, there is the Abundant Life youth choir singing brightly of bathing in lamb’s blood, the dizzying close-ups of Toller’s face, the churning, distorted noise, and the incomprehensible eye-lamp that pierces the drab normalcy of Mary’s apartment, the visual equivalent of a scream no one on-screen seems to hear. Throughout, then, the film’s formal rigidity and stillness strains under a steady tremor of incoherence. In the final scene, this strain breaks through.
So the kiss certainly is too much, bombastic to the point of absurdity. But the film’s careening excessiveness and perpetual risk of total failure is also what makes it genuinely riveting. Schrader plays with the same edge that vexes Toller: we ask for genuine experience when all we want is emotion. First Reformed is indeed a serious exercise in thinking through faith, despair, and the end of the world, but at the same time it indulges unabashedly in the kinds of oneiric pleasures that only movies can bring; this is, after all, the same director who made histrionic masterpieces like Cat People and American Gigolo. We ask for a sober meditation on serious human concerns, when all we want is the sublime. This may make it seem as if Schrader is being pedantic, but he is not punishing us for this. He is rather exploring something deep about the aesthetic dimension of human experience, whether secular or faithful, in life and in film.
Toller pledges from the start that his trial will culminate in self-destruction, so we know how this is all supposed to end. An agnostic priest without any real commitments, he experiments with various and increasingly theatrical methods: prayer, writing, drinking, explosions, blood-letting in the mirror. In all these performances Toller’s avowed aspiration for humble selflessness is outmatched by his desire for emotion and an irrepressible wish for a splashy finale — bombing the church, uniting with Mary, even his arch journal writing — as though, like Augustine, Toller was forever whispering, make me faithful Lord, but not yet, forever twisting out of his impossible commitment to create and leave nothing, to show no mercy, to undo the self entirely.
The film’s thematics prohibit any ordinary narrative conclusion. The question is how to end an exercise that aims to destroy what’s been created, to leave nothing behind. Of course, on the one hand Schrader gives us the splashiest finale imaginable, the most recognizable representation of cathartic closure known in narrative film. And yet in its jarring incongruity and indulgence, the final scene plays not as the satisfying climax of Toller’s character arc but as a kind of formal, cinematic meltdown, as though all the threatening incoherence captured in that uncanny eye-lamp was suddenly unleashed. The craving for big emotion and the drive for irredeemable destruction barrel into one another in an endlessly spinning embrace.
While it is easy to see our inheritance of Augustine’s practice of guilty self-involvement, it is harder to grapple with the suggestion made by the text’s final chapters, namely that this practice of selfhood has no natural stopping point and so can only spin out into something overwhelming and unbounded. Augustine couldn’t bring his own story to any kind of narrative closure or final scene, but instead lifted off the details of his life into an altogether different kind of aesthetic exercise, a speculation on time and our relation to the earliest human history, as though the only way to end this destructive, unproductive work was to simply break it off, break it apart. First Reformed’s delirious kiss, then, is less a character’s final action than a sudden formal gearshift, a jolt into a different aesthetic register. Instead of giving us Toller’s last act of self-annihilation, which would hold the story together and leave all else — world and film — intact, Schrader instead goes all the way and bursts the whole.
Francey Russell is a postdoc in the philosophy and humanities departments at Yale University.