I’ve seen this movie for the first time for Movie Club and I want to add a little trigger warning. The movie discusses topics of suicide and terrorism, and so will this review. As usual, it probably contains spoilers.
First Reformed is a movie about Reverend Toller who takes care of a small, miniscule church community and is suddenly confronted with Michael who has a lot of doubts about the world. I have to say that I am increasingly tired of watching movies about white men who have life problems, but that’s just me. Also, I might be a sensitive person because this movie made me dream about people killing themselves or other people in spartanic rooms. You might guess that this movie is not going to get the best of reviews.
Let me start with the things I liked. I liked the visuals and presentation of the movie. Already when it starts, it has the feeling of an old movie although I think it came out in 2017 or 2018. But with the credits in the beginning, white on black, and no picture or scene to distract you, it gave off this feeling of „old movie“ somehow. It also fits with the general very spartanic feel of the movie.
In general, it is an interesting character study on Reverend Toller. Neither Toller nor any of the other characters in this movie are very likeable. (I really wish we would watch a movie where I’d at least like one of the characters next. Could we make this happen?) It starts with Toller starting the experiment of keeping a journal. However it turns out he is not very good at it. He is both censoring himself by prohibiting to write down his actual thoughts and by tearing out pages that contain his actual thoughts. I think I have rarely seen such a repressed character on screen. The movie shows his repression extremely well: there is the house he lives in which is basically empty. The fact that he doesn’t eat at all, and only drinks alcohol. The fact that he suffers in silence from health issues and it takes him the whole movie to address those. How he shuts out everyone that seems to care about him. I’d say the movie does a good job at showing how Reverend Toller has never forgiven himself for the death of his son.
It was even interesting to see how Toller was confronted with Michael’s ideas about environmental justice and couldn’t ignore it even after Michael died. How he took over Michael’s cause and saw a lot of justice in it. Which even lead him to confront higher ups in the church and a business mogul. But in the end the movie somehow fell short. Because nothing ever came of it. Did the movie want to show how easy it is to fall into extremism and turn to terrorism? Well, I got the picture, but then nothing happened, so … ?
I am also unsure about what exactly was real in the movie. Both the scene were Toller and Mary (Michael’s wife/widow) have an intimate moment on Toller’s empty living room floor and the end scene were scenes where I wasn’t sure if they really happened or if Toller only hallucinated them? Anyhow, whether or not he hallucinated it or not, how is it that these troubled men always get the girl in the end? (This really bothered me.)
I don’t know if anyone else noticed the names in the movie. I think Toller is the only person who doesn’t have an explicit Christian name, therefore his role is not tied into Christian archetype or beliefs. I didn’t look it up so this is only my knowledge about Christian lore: Michael is usually tied to righteousness which ties in with Michael’s just cause for nature. Mary is always the innocent archetype and I’d say Mary is also presented as such in the movie (although I must say I highly question if Michael really committed suice or if Toller or Mary murdered him; wow, my mind is really sceptical about the characters in this movie). Not so sure about Esther and Joel, probably because they seem more important in Judaism, so I’ll skip them.
Actually, I didn’t dislike the movie until the end. I thought it was an interesting study of Toller’s suffering and character (I don’t have to like him to admit that). But since Toller asked Mary not to come to the reconsecration of the church – where he planned a suice attack – I got pretty annoyed with the movie because of the implied relationship between Toller and Mary and the abrupt and somewhat inconsequential end of the movie.
I give the movie two stars.
Other Movie Club reviews can be read as well:
(Photo credit above: Killer Films)