‘First Reformed’ and the Two Types of Thinking Films

It’s a matter of questions and answers.
First Reformed Thinking
By  · Published on June 1st, 2018

There are a lot of different reasons to make a movie. Show business is ultimately still a business, so of course, money is an important one. But beyond that, there can be a number of other motivations, including a desire to make the audience think.

As the existence of film criticism indicates, it is possible to analyze any and all films. However, there is a particular subset of films clearly made with that express intention — the sort designed to spark lengthy post-film discussions. Let’s call these thinking films.

This subset of films can be once again divided, this time into what I’ll call “question films” and “answer films.” As the names suggest, question films are open-ended and seek to leave the audience with questions, while answer films present audiences with specific answers. In other words, if you polled an audience after a screening of an answer film, asking them what the film was about and the conclusions it came to, you should receive overwhelmingly consistent responses. But in the case of question films, you should expect both a wide range of responses and considerable amounts of confusion and uncertainty, albeit with certain concepts and themes cropping up repeatedly.

Question films and answer films are best imagined as two poles on opposite ends of a spectrum. As is often the case with categorization, some films fall cleanly into one box or the other while many more that fall somewhere in between.

While answer films are not inherently nefarious, those falling fully within that end of the spectrum are inherently propagandistic. They have a clear stance, and their goal is to convince you to agree with their stance. Some might call this brainwashing, but that term implies a sort of unthinking passivity that is not applicable here. It’s the difference between a lobotomy and what happens to Robert Fischer in Inception. In fact, the concept of “inception” within that film — implanting an idea in someone else’s mind — is perhaps the best analogy there is for what this kind of film aims to do.

This sort of staunch “answer film” used to be de rigueur for thinking films as a whole. Think of Edward Van Sloan’s opening monologue to James Whale’s Frankenstein: “We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God.” Before the film starts, we are told our protagonist is in the wrong, and exactly why. Or the closing intertitle to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis: “THE MEDIATOR BETWEEN HEAD AND HANDS MUST BE THE HEART!” Where exclamation points are, subtlety is not.

Back in the (relatively) early days of cinema, respectability was a huge concern. One of the primary goals of the film industry was to win the favor of more conservative — and, importantly, religious — groups who judged movies to be a sinful, corrupting influence. In such a context, the prevalence of films that would strike the typical 2018 moviegoer as unpalatably “preachy” can be understood.

While they may not suit modern tastes, it should be appreciated that filmmaking developed and flourished as both a commercial enterprise and an art form through answer films. Look at Sergei Eisenstein, for example. The legendary Soviet filmmaker and theorist is remembered primarily for his impact on editing, both through his publishing writing and his films, including 1925’s Battleship Potemkin, which contains the iconic Odessa Steps sequence that has since been homaged in films such as Brazil (1985) and The Untouchables. His commentary on the function of editing is known for his assertion that montage —the succession of shots in a film — functions as a series of collisions. Shots react with one another in ways that “explode” with new significance. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. However, most modern commentators on Eisenstein fail to mention the actual conclusion of his argument, which was to use these techniques to convince audiences to think and feel in specific ways that serve a particular cause—in his case, Socialism.

While movies falling on the “answer” end of the thinking film spectrum still exist in some capacity today, they tend to skew a little more towards the middle and have fallen largely out of favor. Meanwhile, the question film has exploded in prominence. One of the latest examples is Paul Schrader‘s First Reformed, which stars Ethan Hawke as a conflicted pastor dealing with a multi-layered crisis of faith. The film explores questions of religion, ethics, and responsibility, among others, while fundamentally remaining a Rorschach test. It directs your thinking towards certain questions, but any conclusions you come to as a viewer are entirely up to you. In several respects, from its Academy ratio framing to its 1930s Hollywood style of opening credits, First Reformed looks an awful lot like an old movie. But the way it thinks, and the way in which it asks audiences to think, is very much in line with being a product of 2018.

In addition to being thus far accoladed, First Reformed is one of the most extreme examples of a question film I have ever encountered, as can be seen through the formal element that easily identifies question films, and separates them from their answer counterparts: the ending. Answer films favor pointed, conclusive endings—exclamation points. Generally, figurative ones, though sometimes, as in the case of Metropolis, literal. Meanwhile, question films almost universally end on an ambiguous, and quite often frustrating, note. They more or less have to, as a more conclusive ending would imply a kind of definitiveness that goes against the very nature of a bona fide question film. First Reformed practically sets a new paradigm for ambiguous, frustrating endings. The audience’s reaction when I saw the film was more or less identical to the audience’s reaction I experienced watching Deadpool 2 when the projector cut out mid-film: surprise, confusion, and a hint of irritation. But in the case of First Reformed, it is decidedly intentional. In a recent A24 podcast, Schrader himself admitted, “I don’t know what the ending is.”

But all of this begs the question: why the shift in thinking films? Are audiences fundamentally more sophisticated than they were eighty years ago? Filmmakers more philosophical? I, for one, think a much better argument could be made looking instead at the state of movies as a form of art and entertainment now as opposed to nearly a century ago. Back then, movies were seeking to establish respectability, so they preached. Now, instead of being the new kid on the block, it’s the old standard facing younger competitors: television and video games. Film doesn’t need to fight to establish its credibility anymore, just argue for its continued relevance. So thinking films have shifted to asking audiences complex, open-ended questions instead of trying to spoon-feed audiences answers. After all, while certain ideologies and arguments might lose favor in time, the sort of fundamental questions asked by films like First Reformed never go away.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.