What would it be like to live without faith? The word has clear religious connotations but it’s not explicitly or expressly religious. It means to have complete trust or confidence in someone, or something. And it seems an essential to a hopeful life. When faith expires, then the world is tossed into crisis. Films love to represent the machinations of crises, of a character on the verge of a breakdown.
Paul Schrader penned the script to Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ and the 2018 film First Reformed, written and directed by Schrader, seems a natural extension of this – a bleak film about a reverend experiencing a crisis of faith. And yet it seems to have more in common with another Scorsese collaboration, Taxi Driver, which is another film about a man spiralling out of control with his faith in the world leaking out of him like blood from a ruptured blood vessel.
In First Reformed, Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Ernst Toller of the First Reformed church in New York. The 250-year-old church is a tourist site more than a place of devoted followers, limping by on support from a nearby mega-church. Reverend Toller seems increasingly despondent and disillusioned in the face of the dwindling attendance. He appears to find purpose in a tenuous mentor relationship to Michael, a radical-environmentalist whose wife fears for his mental wellbeing. It does not end
well, but the situation seems to give Reverend Toller a newfound purpose.
“Will God forgive us for destroying his creation?” It’s a question that Michael stirs in Toller and which reverberates throughout the rest of the film. Toller seems to wrestle with his new found purpose in life even as he seems to be spiralling out of control. It’s not that he’s lost faith in god. Or, it’s not only that he’s lost faith in god. We begin to see a man who has lost faith in the world and as the film begins its movement to its climax, we realise that he has lost faith in himself – and this is critical. For what would it be like to live in a world without faith? A world where you have no one, and nothing, that you depend on? The recent digital release of First Reformed makes it almost pointedly apropos in a world where the question seems timelier than we would like.
Hereditary, another recent digital release, is not about Christianity, although it does evoke the spiritual and even the vaguely religious at times. The first shot of the film is the complete obituary of Ellen Leigh, a woman who is dead before the film begins, and who we never meet. But it sets up the film’s oddness. Her daughter, Annie Graham, delivers a eulogy at her funeral, which immediately arouses a perverse interest. It is mournful, vaguely noncommittal, sad but also weary. The mother’s death seems peripheral. Until it suddenly is not. Leigh’s tomb is desecrated soon after and tragedy strikes the family again in the form of calamitous death. And then a mystical presence appears with the help of a gregarious medium whose good-natured assistance soon turns sinister. Hereditary is a horror film, and it’s also a film about families and belief and the bleak state of the world when a family is marked by faithlessness. For no one in the Graham family seems to trust the other. It’s a house that heavy under the weight of unease.
First Reformed and Hereditary do not immediately present themselves as parts of a single whole, or variations of a theme. And yet, despite their release on home viewing more than a month apart, I kept thinking about the ways they intersected, or even didn’t intersect. Toni Collette as Annie in Hereditary, alongside Hawke in First Reformed offer performances that are loaded with weariness. They are both living lives of despair, and the despair seems to hang off them. It emanates from within in a way that is exhausting to watch.
Although it is Hereditary that is the real horror film here, both films precipitate a sense of dull dread in the audience as they interrogate the relationship between people and the spiritual. The question of whether or not Hereditary is as terrifying as its press tour has argued seems irrelevant. The movie does terrify in its moments, although its movement from humanistic horror to supernatural in the last third feels unsatisfying in a way that took me out the movie. The film is buoyed by an excellent Toni Collette but it’s the younger Alex Wolff who particularly impresses as a boy out of his wits in a world that’s out of his control.
First Reformed, too, makes a turn for the supernatural and its final shot – a shot that goes on deliriously long but seems to improve as it does so – benefits from an equivocal nature that makes it immediately arresting.
As much as the films both journey into the supernatural, at the end Hereditary ends up compromising itself by trying provide answers that cannot satisfy. First Reformed, instead, descends into the faintly fantastical at its end not to give us answers but only raise questions.
The debuting Ari Aster, who writes and directs Hereditary, has a firm grip of mood. The film’s house is a gothic monstrosity that ekes out character, even as the film itself benefits more from its tone and form than its writing and content. Schrader’s work writing and directing in First Reformed seems more assured. Both films are about the ways that the world is gripped by evil that spirals out of control and envelopes everything around it, and both offer up images and themes that seem bound to haunt us as we look around at the contemporary world’s own loss of faith.
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