Like many people, when Paul Schrader’s First Reformed came out, I immediately thought about it in its most obvious context—as a modern interpretation of Diary of a Country Priest, or a near shot-for-shot adaptation of Winter Light. It wasn’t until we entered this current moment as a society that I started to reconsider First Reformed as a remake of a different film, Schrader’s own Hardcore. Why would you keep telling the same story over and over, I wondered. Well, if you had gained new wisdom along the way, the ending might change. The characters might make different choices.
We’re lucky enough to see that kind of evolution in two of Schrader’s films: Hardcore and First Reformed. The wisdom accumulated in the nearly forty years between each story’s telling is vital to considering the questions we face not only as a society, but as a global species, in these wildly changing times.
“This isn’t in some distant future. You will live to see this.”
First Reformed raises the stakes of Hardcore, prying the audience from its comfortable remove as a passive, if empathetic observer in 1979, and locking it into the driver’s seat in 2017. While human trafficking and the sex trade are grim realities depicted in Hardcore, most filmgoers can shirk personal accountability for them by remembering that they’re safely cocooned from that world by their privilege, by their ignorance, or by their relative powerlessness as everyday people.
But First Reformed anchors itself to the undeniable realities of climate change, meaning that short of moving to the moon, nobody in a theater seat is any safer from the consequences of this crisis than our onscreen protagonists. We leave the film knowing we all have a responsibility to do something about the problem.
As a distressed parishioner warns First Reformed’s Reverend Toller: “This isn’t in some distant future. You will live to see this.”
Look no further than the ongoing coronavirus pandemic to consider the critical turning point we are at as humans. In the last ten years, American idealism has reached a boiling point, maybe best encapsulated with our deeply polarizing 2016 presidential election. It has never been more obvious that despite the broad opportunities afforded us within our Constitution, most of us primarily exercise our limitless freedom to vehemently preserve our own personal, insular thinking.
Our minds have never been more closed to the greater good, or perhaps it’s only now we’re realizing the scope of what we all stand to lose when we fully prioritize the self over society.
In Hardcore, Schrader seemed to challenge us to consider that greater good by confronting us with the suffering and exploitation of sex workers. But in the final minutes of the film, he relieved us of the true weight of this social responsibility by tacking on a Hollywood ending and assuring us that there was nothing we could do about the characters excluded from it.
In First Reformed, by making it abundantly clear that none of us will escape the fate of the world anymore than his characters, there is no relief, only the hope that we leave the screening and decide to modify our actions for the good of all, not just the gratification of ourselves.
These films are essentially about the same man, in different eras, confronting undeniable crisis
The protagonists of Hardcore and First Reformed are essentially first and second drafts of the same character. Each is a man whose wife has left them, and each is a father to an only child who has been taken from them by violence their beliefs can’t explain away. Each ultimately must admit that their willful ignorance of the real world has driven their children to these fates.
Both men bear witness to the way crisis ravages their children’s generation, and both, ultimately, are aided in their course correction by young women who function as stand-ins for the children they’ve lost. Both men are operating as a symbol of fatherly wisdom to their respective communities, but both of them ultimately must reject the familiar comfort of those communities in order to confront realities beyond the scope of their knowledge and experience.
Both films open with the same spiritual anchor from the Heidelberg Catechism:
Q: What is your only comfort, in life and death?
A: That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful savior Jesus Christ.
Both films end with the realization that spiritual anchor is not strong enough.
Jake VanDorn moves through Hardcore with a strange certainty that this crisis will never fully claim him
The stakes were lower in Hardcore, and maybe that’s why its protagonist, Jake VanDorn, has such a relatively easy time making it to the end of the film alive. Hardcore is about one missing person, and less about the risks to all people as a whole.
Though he has his moments of grief, VanDorn never fully loses his grip on his confidence as a seasoned and successful businessman. He steps almost too easily into the disguise of a porn producer, and lumbers without hesitation into some of the most terrifying and bleak corners of the industry to hunt down his daughter. He never seems afraid that he’ll be a victim. Tormented as a televised church choir sings “It Is Well With My Soul”, he casts his spiritual qualms aside almost the instant he realizes that neither the cops nor his hired P.I. are that driven to find his daughter.
VanDorn locates and bonds with a young sex worker who helps him search for his daughter. His reform-rooted conscience affords them a safe, familial intimacy that features the kind of candor he can’t have with his own family, and their relationship never turns predatory, sexual, or even vaguely romantic. He fearlessly confronts the men he believes to be responsible for his daughter’s exploitation, empowered by the belief that no child of God gets into sex work voluntarily.
The final test of VanDorn’s unshakeable faith collapses under scrutiny. A rushed ending full of sloppy Hollywood dialogue affirms the fundamental value of his beliefs rather than illuminating their complexity. He recovers the child he reared in the church and relinquishes the child he found on the streets. His daughter claims she voluntarily got into porn as an act of rebellion and that VanDorn’s overbearing paternalism motivated her to run away. They embrace and go home, reunited and reconciled.
In Hardcore, VanDorn never really has to fully accept the real world for what it is—he ventures into the mud, plucks the one person he truly cares about out of it, and returns to his Michiagn idyll and its embrace of prayer and privilege. You can almost imagine him getting up and sharing with his congregation how he succeeded in rescuing his only child from a den of iniquity.
Reverend Toller, on the other hand, knows he is a walking casualty
In the very first scenes of First Reformed, Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Toller lets you know immediately that whatever motions you observe him going through, his faith has long since left the building. “If only I could pray,” he muses in his journal, between slugs of whiskey. There’s no mistaking the world weary cynicism on his face as he takes in a youth choir’s rousing rendition of “Are You Washed In the Blood of the Lamb”. He has already long lived with the knowledge that nobody can really be white as snow.
Though he butts up against youthful idealism more than once and manages to wrest it aside, it’s only when his own existential crisis is one-upped by a suicidal parishioner that he has to stop and consider the stakes of not really believing in anything at all. He already knows there is no catechetical training for this kind of global crisis. He already knows, more or less, that this crisis is not taking place in a separate reality from his.
Unlike VanDorn, who has to travel outside of his zip code to face the truth of exploitation, Toller has been rubbing elbows with the prepetrators of the crisis—which lives in all of our back yards—all along. The crisis is reality. In setting aside the rubric of his faith to compartmentalize it, he is awakened to its universal scope.
Freed of denial, Toller needs none of VanDorn’s disguises to keep himself separate from the cesspool. He remains in his pastoral attire as he goes to coffee shops, to the doctor’s office, for sushi, even on a tour of a Balq facility. His lack of a poker face creates friction in more than one encounter. He willingly presides over a memorial service for his dead parishioner at a toxic waste site. The only atypical wardrobe he ever dons is the suicide vest—but as he realizes while educating himself on climate change, this is not the costume of somebody else’s fight. It is his fight, too.
Surrogates for those consumed by the crisis appear and disappear
In Hardcore, VanDorn befriends and relies upon a contemporary of his daughter’s to help him navigate the seedier side of the sex work industry. She acknowledges the one-sided nature of their partnership, and her fear that she will be forgotten as soon as he gets the resolution he seeks. In the end, despite his promises not to abandon her, VanDorn literally leaves her on the side of the street. His private investigator assures him that there’s nothing anyone can do for a person like her. Just then, the camera pans up and away, rising angelically above the streets of San Francisco, as VanDorn and his daughter are folded safely into a police sedan, like a visual permission slip not to consider anyone else’s fate.
In First Reformed, Toller makes a similar promise to the young widow of his deceased parishioner. He stands by her before and after her husband’s death. Perhaps this is because he has accepted there will never be answers within the world of his faith. However, before taking the final step in his own journey, he makes it a point to see that she is safely capable of proceeding in her own. Once he knows she’ll be moving to stay with family, that she has the confidence of her own faith and her own coping skills, he finally confronts the same darkness that claimed her husband. He has a deeper awareness of his responsibility to the next generation, perhaps because unlike VanDorn, he can never recover the child that he lost.
The composition of each film places a different level of responsibility on the viewer, both to observe and to act on what they observe
Hardcore showed you very specifically where to look and what to see. Here is a a 1970s Michigan neighborhood, filled with happy families and Christmas cheer in the wake of a blizzard, as a country rendition of “Precious Memories” plays. First Reformed opens roughly the same time of year, though the snow has long melted, if it ever snowed at all. There is no music, just the creaking of leafless trees, the wind through brown grass. In place of Rockwellian neighborhood vignettes are silent, still shots of the Dutch colonial church.
Hardcore’s orderly shots and prompt musical cues clearly mark the line between the worlds of sinners and sanctified. Here is bright and colorful California. Here are neon-saturated brothels and smoky strip clubs. Here is clean, peaceful Grand Rapids, with muted tones and rushing rivers and the promise of a coming spring.
First Reformed makes you decide what it is that you’re looking at and avoids identifying any space as safer than another. The camera sits, unmoving, well before and after scenes take place. Everything is washed in the same dusky palates that make it impossible to tell where exactly we are in the time between winter and spring—transitions which have only grown blurrier as the climate struggles to sustain itself. There is no non-diagetic sound, no score to encourage you which way to emotionally engage with the characters or the events which take place. Lustmord’s ambient score serves only to echo the feeling of hearing our hearts pounding in our ears.
Are we capable of prioritizing the greater good?
The call and response of Hardcore and First Reformed reflect a dramatic passage of time in this country since the 1970s. What were emerging issues of morality then are unquestionable crises of humanity now.
No longer do we have the luxury of hiding within our privilege, no longer do we have the hope that some future generation will suss all this out. Ultimately both films are about whether or not we can heed the warning signs and form real alliances with strangers; ultimately both films are about whether we can put the good of humanity ahead of our own personal desire for a comfortable life.
Never has it felt like a more critical time to think globally. But will we? To quote a bumper sticker hiding in the back of a frame in Hardcore, “Jesus is coming, and he’s mad as hell.”