4. Mysteries and Metaphors
Within the story structure of First Reformed, there are three different metaphors being used to interrogate the same themes of human corruption: climate change, megachurches, and cancer. The first two compliment each other as adverse effects of consumerism. In one case, consumerism is killing our planet; in the other it’s killing our spirituality. It’s destroying us both ecologically and theologically. Whether you agree with either of these perspectives is ultimately beside the point; they’re used here to make a statement about a deeper truth, of our own internal decay, which is also exemplified in the third metaphor of Toller’s cancer.
Within these core metaphors are others as well, not the least of which is Seyfried’s pregnant mother, named Mary, a secularized mix of the Holy Mother and Magdalene, and a paragon of mercy. Schrader also films the story entirely in a square frame rather than a widescreen rectangle, to further emphasize Toller’s psychological and spiritual claustrophobia, his sense of feeling boxed in.
More prominently, there's the troubled husband who wants to atone for humanity's sins through eco-terrorist martyrdom; meanwhile, Toller begins to inflict self-flagellation as a means to atone for his own sins. In both respects, Schrader is making the observation that any justice or atonement sought through our own sacrifices, and outside of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, is prideful, delusional, and spiritually psychotic. He draws a connection between any act of judgment or cleansing that tries to usurp the work that only God’s grace can do: each one emerges from and lead to the same jihadist impulse.
As First Reformed expands into more theaters across the country throughout June, its art house ambiguities will likely polarize viewers, especially as it progresses from the real to the surreal. But if you lean in to the meditative style and look past the surface to consider what things may represent, what you’ll find is an old provocateur using new cinematic tools to reconcile a spiritual philosophy. He may still contemplate his ideas through filters of agony and despair, but in those valleys of confusion, doubt, and overwhelming anguish, Schrader’s ideals aspire to courage, love, and hope.
Publication date: May 22, 2018
Images courtesy: A24