When I began writing my first novel, a lot of emphasis was placed on the opening – did it draw the reader in, was it flabby, lightweight? I’m not I’ve ever managed to get my beginnings just so and I do spend an unconscionable amount of time on them.
Not so the endings. Mostly I don’t plot to a specific ending but when i get there I know it’s where I want to be. Not everyone agrees. I do like leaving my readers with a few questions that they can answer for themselves. Or perhaps a teaser for the sequel. One book, as yet unpublished was kindly read by a friend who felt I’d taken this ‘and now read the sequel’ route a bit too enthusiastically. I’m working on that one!
First Reformed is a film about a priest who has doubts (if they didn’t I doubt they’d be the subject if a movie). Rev Toller has a back story, not that we really get into it, involving a marriage and a dead child (no plot spoiler this one – there may be later). He lives in the peeling rickety vicarage next to a rather beautiful eighteenth century church that has been restored with money donated by a local businessman. It is 250 years old and about to be reconsecrated. But our hero has a drink problem and feels he has let down a parishioner who came to him, under pressure from his pregnant wife, for some counselling (a tedious ten minute plus piece of talking-headery during which I dozed off so I may have missed something).
Consequently he isn’t that enamoured at the hoopla and fandango involved in this celebration.
There is a point, about halfway in where the film reaches an existential crossroads. It could look at the decline and collapse of this man in the sadly commonplace incremental way in which the small daily deaths arising from self-loathing lead to a final explosion of emotional gore, or it can incorporate a plot device solely with the aim of ratcheting up the tension and which leads inexorably to a real explosion of visceral violence.
In choosing to pursue the later route this film misses a trick. Ethan Hawke is splendid as the priest masking and yet revealing his turmoil, sometimes in the same frame but once we perceive the track he is on, the cliches come thick and fast. The crowds gather for the big celebration; our hero steels himself for his big entrance (and even bigger exit) and then, biff, he is stopped by… you’ve guessed it… love. This scene, to me, made absolutely no sense and I was sitting there thinking, well, maybe he’ll explain just what went on in the next scene when the film ended.
What? It’s done? Like that?
It jars, it’s facile, it doesn’t work and the director bloody well knows it. To quote the rather sycophantic review in the Guardian
First Reformed is a passionately focused film but not a masterpiece, being flawed as it is by a certain inability to decide on an ending.
A certain inability? It doesn’t so much end as disappear. It’s like someone tore out the last page, rather like the Rev does with the journal he shares with us a various stages in the film (another tedious bit of philosophising which is transparently self indulgent).
I like thoughtful movies; I’m happy with dialogue heavy films. I can even tolerate a certain amount of meaningful silences. And the potential here was so promising. So promising.
Shame really. The church, itself is beautiful, beguilingly simple and full of intrigue. If only the film had been the same. If you get the chance… stay at home and watch reruns of the Donald tweeting. It’s far more intellectually satisfying..