‘First Reformed’ and the Crippling Struggle of Cognitive Dissonance

If you’d like to experience this article in podcast form, check out my show Your Brain on Film.

There are spoilers for First Reformed in this article.

Michael and Reverend Toller sit across from one another in this pivotal moment—the house dead silent, the atmosphere awkward, the space between them immense.

Michael is distraught, scared to bring a child into a world he believes will soon become uninhabitable by climate change, as Toller attempts to comfort Michael. After much discussion and pushback from Michael, who wants his wife Mary to have an abortion, Toller attempts to win Michael over with this final point:

“Courage is the solution to despair. Reason provides no answers. We can’t know what the future will bring. We have to choose despite uncertainty. Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind simultaneously: hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.”

But as Toller goes on to experience, those decisions can’t be guilt-free if we hold other opposing beliefs. Toller is a man of God and believes God has a plan for everything. Yet, he doesn’t believe God would allow mankind to pollute Earth in the way it has for decades now. The first conclusion means Toller should trust in God to work everything out, while the second position means Toller should step in and fight for what he believes God would want.

This quote from Toller is actually quite relevant to how many people will experience First Reformed: there are movies that feel cohesive and realized, and then there are movies like this that seem at odds with themselves throughout. And because of that, it can feel like the movie is purposefully misleading us. But really, the movie is keeping in line with Toller’s internal struggle with his opposing beliefs.

That can create for a frustrating experience when watching First Reformed. I experienced those frustrations myself during the scene when Mary lied on top of Toller, each fully clothed, and their bodies transported to space.

And then of course there’s the final scene. Just before Toller is about to drink Drano and take his own life, Mary shows up, he drops his glass, and then the camera spins around the two as they kiss—and the movie ends.

These scenes, which flow and move erratically, are seemingly contradictory to the rest of movie, which is filled with static shots of philosophical conversations and Toller writing in his journal. In a film that’s a very slow, stilted, and internal religious drama, I believe these two out-of-body experiences being fantastical and romantic is director Paul Schrader’s way of signifying the difference between the hope and despair Toller spoke of in that quote.

Just because a movie starts to do something different stylistically…doesn’t mean it’s diverging from the narrative—in fact, it’s quite the opposite with First Reformed. Instead of allowing these two scenes to remove you from the film, they can actually provide context for the story you’ve been watching. And a key to piecing together this puzzling narrative is thinking back to that scene where Toller preaches to Michael the importance of being in control of your internal environment.

Coping with cognitive dissonance

The struggle of holding two contradictory beliefs isn’t anything new. Leon Festinger coined the term that defines that very idea, “cognitive dissonance,” in 1957.

As humans, we are constantly growing and adapting and evolving. We hold certain beliefs to be true, then learn new information, and then develop or change those beliefs. It’s a constant cycle we experience each and every day that changes our relationship with reality on three different levels:

  1. Consonant relationship: Two cognitions or actions consistent with each other.
  2. Irrelevant relationship: Two cognitions or actions unrelated to each other.
  3. Dissonant relationship: Two cognitions or actions inconsistent with each other.

The first two relationships should seem pretty normal. Like, say your 10-year high school reunion is coming up and you want to lose 25 pounds to impress the girl you had a crush on during your senior year…some girl named Stacy Sadler (a girl I totally just made up).

Actions consistent with that goal would be eating more vegetables, exercising more often, and cutting down on fatty foods. If you did those things, you would have a consonant relationship with your hope to lose weight.

An irrelevant relationship would be if you wanted to lose 25 pounds and take up knitting, or learn to whistle, or finally tell your grandma that you don’t really like her “famous” chocolate chip cookies all that much.

But if you had a dissonant relationship with losing weight, you’d be stressed as all hell. Because while you really really really wanna show Stacy how much you’ve changed since 2008…you also really really really love eating Swiss Rolls, drinking Pepsi, and playing Super Mario 64 for hours on end.

Your desire to perform two antithetical actions creates internal conflict and causes you to worry about the moment Stacy finally lays eyes on you after all these years. Internally, your inability to choose between these two lifestyles disrupts your external environment.

That’s a fairly harmless example. But cognitive dissonance can completely upend your life and put you in a state of turmoil.

Say you grew up on a farm, and your family has always been rich because your parents raised a family of chickens. They would collect the eggs and slaughter the chickens and then sell it all for money. It’s been a growing operation, and now that you’re a college graduate, you’re ready to take on an important role in the business.

But then…you watch Food Inc. And then you start reading about animal cruelty. And then your new boyfriend becomes a vegan and thinks what your parents do is kinda messed up.

Based on all of the data you’ve collected, you’ve determined it’s fundamentally wrong to raise and kill chickens in the way your parents do. But then again, you got your college degree in agriculture, you can support your future family with the money you’d earn from the chickens, and there’s nobody else to take over your parents’ farm if they pass on.

You have beliefs steeped deeply into two completely contradictory lifestyles.

So, what do you do?

The very thought of deciding between those two paths is enough to make you curl up into a ball and munch on those Swiss Rolls you’ve been thinking about since I mentioned them. Most people would agree that we should fully avoid dissonant relationships.

Well…nearly everyone. Because there happen to be people like F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote way back in 1936 in The Crack-Up:

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

So let’s use Fitzgerald’s approach: Should you cut out eating Swiss Rolls altogether…or maybe should you find some balance between the two? Maybe you cut it down from two Swiss Rolls a day to just one. Maybe for every Swiss Roll you eat, you increase your workout time for the day by 20 minutes. Maybe you’re only allowed to buy one pack of Swiss Rolls if you run to the supermarket three miles away.

Now let’s extend this to the chicken farm. There’s a person who would let the decision between those two planes tear them apart; a person who would break up with their boyfriend or tell their parents to fuck off; a person who couldn’t fathom feeling at peace with themselves continuing the family business or abandoning it.

But another person—which is what I believe Fitzgerald means by “first-rate intelligence”—finds a balance. It’s what Reverend Toller refers to as “wisdom.”

You can both want to continue your parents’ business and be more humane with the chickens—you don’t have to choose between one or the other.

Imagine if you drafted up a contract that stipulated better living conditions for the chickens. And then you partnered with PETA to film a video on why other farms should follow suit. And then you became a vegan and promised your boyfriend to raise your kids as vegans.

Wouldn’t you suddenly feel really good about taking over the family business?

Cognitive dissonance in First Reformed

Now let’s think back to Toller’s talk with Michael:

“Courage is the solution to despair. Reason provides no answers. We can’t know what the future will bring. We have to choose despite uncertainty. Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind simultaneously: hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.”

Person 1 is annoyed that two ideas are in conflict with one another.

Person 2 knows it’s better to understand that naturally there is inherent conflict between many things; Person 2 knows that all decisions have downsides and risks, but that a decision must still be made; Person 2 knows that it’s possible to both love and hate, to both fear and confront, to both hope and despair.

Person 1 is in disarray internally—Person 2 is at peace.

When Toller presents cognitive dissonance as a fundamental reality, Michael’s reaction is to put his hands over his mouth and think deeply. He almost seems resolved to this idea he now recognizes as a universal truth of life. It should be no surprise that Michael then commits suicide.

When Michael asks Toller, “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?” Toller responds:

Who can know the mind of God? But we can choose a righteous life. Belief, forgiveness, grace governs us all. I believe that.

During his discussion with Michael, Toller presents himself as a strong individual that had learned to cope with his son’s death in the war:

Michael, I can promise you that whatever despair you feel about bringing a child into this world cannot equal the despair of taking a child from it.

Toller claims that it is much better to embrace the uncertainty of life than to run from it—you should welcome children into God’s mysterious world and allow them to figure out life on their own. Michael simply couldn’t commit to bringing a child into a world that would soon be ruined by climate change.

After coming upon Michael’s dead body, we see a shift in Toller’s behavior and journal entries. Instead of living by the word of God, he starts to question what he’s understood about the word of God. He wonders whether you can even make it into heaven if you’ve done nothing to save the earth God created. On the Church’s sign, he arranges the letters to read, “Will God forgive us?”

As Toller begins to research more about climate change and challenges Reverend Jeffers accepting donations from a local polluter, we see him adopting Michael’s drastic, revolutionary methods. While Toller tells Michael that you must let God’s plan play out, he also finds himself unable to live with both hope and despair.

With his internal environment in ruins, we see him resorting to radical behavior and contemplating using Michael’s bomb vest at his church’s 250th consecration.

Using cognitive dissonance to explain the ending of First Reformed

When you understand how much cognitive dissonance has ruined Toller’s outlook on the world, the sudden stylistic change in filmmaking that takes place during those two confusing scenes makes more sense. While most of the movie features static shots of Toller positioned in an environment where he feels he’s more of a fixture in the Church…

…the scene where Mary lays on top of Toller transports them outside of their bodies. They start in space, then drift into the mountains and the forest—before the culprits of pollution wander in and consume nature.

You can view this scene as a logical continuation of Toller’s mental state. He wants to be present with Mary and help her through a tough time, but he’s also overwhelmed by the state of the world. There’s so much beautiful nature that will be vanquished by these toxic companies, and Toller has been avoiding that reality instead of confronting it. Toller goes from such an emotional high when traveling through nature with Mary…to a disgusting setting that has ripped Mary’s family apart.

He initially prayed the word of God would make sense of this crime—but slowly hope has washed away and despair has settled in. Internally, in this moment where he floats with Mary, he’s incapable of imaging a beautiful world without confronting its ugliest parts. Instead of learning to live with these two contradictory truths—what he defines as “wisdom”—we see him spiraling and choosing despair over hope.

This all leads to that final scene where Mary finds Toller, who is ready to commit suicide like Michael. And once again, we have a scene that strays from the style we’re used to, as the camera shifts from motionless to intense.

Funny enough, director Paul Schrader was asked by Sofia Coppola about what the ending means on the A24 Podcast, to which he responded:

I don’t know what the ending is. It can be read in either one of two ways. One, that a miracle has occurred and his life is spared. The other is equally, in my sense, optimistic, which is that he drinks the Drano and he’s on all fours. He’s throwing up his stomach and God comes over to him, who has not talked to him for the whole movie, and says, “Reverend Toller, you wanna know what Heaven looks like? Here it it is. This is exactly what it looks like: It looks like one long kiss.” And that’s the last thing he sees.

Here we even have the director saying he’s not quite sure what happens at the end. Plainly, on a plot level, Toller could either live or die in this moment—that’s clear.

But that doesn’t tell us what the ending means, right? Whether he dies or not, there are still questions. How does that plot point speak to the character journey Toller has gone on? What does that say about Toller’s faith in God?

What we have to remember is that while Toller has tussled with the external environment, it’s his own internal environment—his own cognitive dissonance—that has truly torn him apart. That inability to both hope and despair has led to his erratic behavior, his increased drinking, his loneliness.

If he dies, he has died giving in to despair just like Michael did.

But if he lives? Toller has taken Michael’s place and continued to fight.

And that ends up being the lesson of First Reformed: There is both beauty and ugliness in this world, and being able to cope with it determines how you’ll be able to exist within it. If you believe in something, you must choose to fight for it—running away only results in anguish, in defeat, in the death of your self.

Perhaps what’s most unnerving about this ending isn’t our ability to understand what’s happened, but instead how it forces us to make our own decision—the viewer has to choose whether Toller lives or dies. If he lives, the world doesn’t get any better, but he can now be with Mary. If he dies, he loses Mary, but also goes to heaven and confronts God.

We’re not so much choosing for Toller, but instead choosing what we would do in the same situation. The same way the characters were challenged to hold competing concepts, the viewer is challenged to hold competing conclusions.

Originally published at filmcolossus.com.

Writer for Forbes | Founder of Colossus | Host of Your Brain on Film

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