First Reformed/Last Scene

Back in April, I was able to see the new film First Reformed early thanks to the Independent Film Festival in Boston. It was playing on one of the smaller screens in the theater so I assumed they didn’t get anyone from the film to show up. Usually that sort of thing is saved for the bigger screen since it comes with a stage in front of it. However, to my surprise (and seemingly the festival’s the way they introduced him), writer/director Paul Schrader was there to answer a few questions. First, he had a question for us.

Quickly, a spoiler rundown of the movie. Ethan Hawke plays a priest relegated to a touristy church that is only kept around for its historical landmark status. Most of its congregation has moved to its sister megachurch down the road. Hawke, in the midst of an unnamed illness, that is either due to or being coped with his excessive drinking (probably both), starts having a crisis of faith. His love and inherent need to protect God’s creation parallels with the science community’s consensus on climate change, and yet he sees most of his fellow faith-leaders siding with the corporations who are poisoning the environment, mostly because they are the ones still attending mass and donating to politicians who claim to be religious.

Hawke becomes more and more unhinged about it after the apparent suicide of a man seeking his help who was also a radical environmental activist planning a suicide bombing. Hawke ends up considering wearing the vest himself while spending time with the activist’s widow (played by Amanda Seyfried). The two have grieved together, but Hawke decided to go through with it during a re-sanctification of his church, where many of the important mega church parishioners would be in attendance. He tells Seyfried not to show up, sparing her from the blast, but she does anyway. When he sees her, he switches gears. He removes the vest, wraps his naked chest in barbed wire, and pours plumbing cleaner into his scotch, martyring only himself. Before he could take a swig, he sees Seyfried in the living room of his attached living quarters. He puts the glass down and embraces Seyfried, kissing her.

Back to the question, Schrader asked us, “Who thinks Ethan Hawke is alive at the end of the movie?” One person raised their hand: a woman who became very insecure when she noticed she was the only one. She even shared that she was worried she was wrong, despite Schrader being very supportive about her point of view, even going as far as to say, he wasn’t sure himself about it. However, Schrader’s films, especially Taxi Driver, contemplate what Schrader refers to as “suicidal glory,” the misguided idea that your suicide could be meaningful enough to be heroic. The idea was Hawke drank the drink, dying, and the image of Seyfried was just a trick of the mind to ease him during his pain.

I think about that night a lot and wish I had raised my hand. I genuinely did not think Hawke died in the end, but I was so distracted by similar insecurity that I was going over the scene in my head. “Was I supposed to think that?” I thought. As I came to a “hell no” conclusion, the conversation had already moved on. But I still feel bad that I had the same impression as that woman and didn’t join her in raising my hand.

The “he was dead all along” fan theories are a dime a dozen, and almost none of them stand up to scrutiny. It is a very trendy “my first film analysis” observation that thinks it is more deep than it is, but I don’t think it ever adds anything. If Hawke’s character decided to go through with killing himself, I honestly don’t give a shit what he imagines to help cope with the pain. I was never on board with his plan (or his reasoning), I was just happy he decided to waste one life instead of a building full of them. Often times, it takes what is a purely genuine moment in a film and diminishes it to a figment. I find it so much more impactful to know Seyfried would seek him out to make sure that he is ok, and at his lowest low, her mere presence, a fellow lost soul needing symbiotic support, could change his frame of mind.