Movie Night: First Reformed

Year: 2017
Genre: Drama
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer

A minister of a small congregation in upstate New York grapples with mounting despair brought on by tragedy, worldly concerns and a tormented past.

We had just finished watching Gattaca (a truly world-class movie) when we came across First Reformed on the iTunes New & Noteworthy section, and thought to give it a try – more because of Ethan Hawke than anything else.

I will say Ethan Hawke seems to truly dedicate himself to whatever role he takes.

The plot – such as it is – centers around a middle-aged minister of a fading congregation whose son was killed in Afghanistan (or Iraq – I can’t remember). Whilst he tries to comfort and help the few remaining members of his flock, he clearly is battling an almost unbearable inner despair – something that becomes painfully evident as he fails to reach the people he tries to help.

First Reformed is really more of a character study on depression and the loss of faith, and the events that take place are at once surreal and hauntingly believable. When Ethan Hawke’s character, Minister Toller, comes across a suicide vest in the belongings of one of his congregation, he doesn’t report it – he takes it. Combined with the stark contrast between his own poorly-attended worship and the wildly successful for-profit church in the neighboring town, and things take – as you can imagine – a nasty turn for the worse.

The final few scenes are nail-bitingly intense, and equally bizarre – suffice to say bombs, churches and barbed wire are involved. This isn’t a happy film, but it subtly underplayed by the entire cast to great effect. You truly believe the emotional rollercoaster of every character, even if you don’t particularly like any of them; the person I felt sorry for the most was ultimately Amanda Seyfried’s Mary, who really didn’t deserve the punishment inflicted on her by Ethan Hawke’s misery and rage.

Sad, despondent and dark.

6/10 would watch again.

How Should Death Be Treated in Fiction?

As someone who suffers from bipolar depression and has often been suicidal, I think about death possibly more frequently than most. And when I say think about it, I mean really ponder it – what it must feel like to breathe a last breath, to beat a last heartbeat, and then the moments of fading consciousness as the body fights its hardest to prevent a total shutdown on a cellular level. After all, dying is a process – it isn’t instant.

To quote Depeche Mode, death is everywhere; we see it daily on the news, and in real life with the crushed squirrels and battered deer on the side of the road. We cause it – deliberately and inadvertently – when we swat at a mosquito, or a wasp. But we only ever experience it once, which is why it remains such a mystery; no one can really tell what it’s like to die, because – to quote The Crow – there ain’t no coming back.

And as art is a reflection of life, and death is a part of life, death finds its way into the stories we tell with an almost inescapable certainty. Whether the story is The Lion King or Pulp Fiction, there is hardly a tale in the world that doesn’t deal with death in some way – whether explicitly, implicitly, or at least by threatening characters with death as a kind of ultimate stake.

In most stories where death is a central plot point, the deaths in question are typically premature – the result of violence or illness. These deaths, of course, carry the heaviest emotional weight – at least, when the character is some form of protagonist. These deaths are usually treated with a measure of respect, dignity and gravitas.

When the character is a villain, however, things become different. Low-level goons are often offed with a kind of casual indifference, whilst end-bosses are treated to a typically spectacular death, glorifying their demise as something to be celebrated in all its gore. The 2012 film Dredd is a picture-perfect epitome of this: throughout the movie quite literally hundreds of people are killed in a variety of inventive and bloody ways, but nothing tops the two-minute slow-motion swan-dive from a 200-story window that demolishes – in exceptionally graphic detail – the movie’s head honcho, Ma-Ma.

Evidently, there are a lot of ways to treat a character’s death, from understated and emotional to disbelievingly violent and visually spectacular, and some of this depends on the nature of the character and the nature of the story. But what defines the appropriateness of the realism, so to speak, of a character’s demise? And how is realism defined, when – as noted above – no one really knows what it’s like to die in the first place?

To this end, I think the intended audience is an important consideration in the description, detail and realism of the death in question. If you’re writing for six-year-olds, it’s entirely appropriate to deal with the topic, but perhaps in a softer way than if you’re writing for sixteen-year-olds.

But even for an older audience, it’s important to understand the living experiences that the majority of them have gone through. Very few six-year-olds will have experienced death first-hand. Sixteen-year-olds, on the other hand, may well of witnessed the passing of a grandparent, or a beloved family pet. And a sixty-year-old will have likely experienced numerous deaths in their lifetime. And the method of describing a fictional death depends on the sensibility and general understanding of the target audience.

When I started writing The Redemption of Erâth, I knew there were going to be deaths of important characters. Being that the story is intended as a kind of suitable-for-all-ages tale, I wanted to treat these deaths as truly meaningful, impactful and important, without glorifying the detail of the characters’ passing. The first major death, a teenage girl, is described in passing as an arrow piercing her heart. The second, an invented fantasy being, is described in more detail with gashes to her throat and sliver blood spattered about. But in both of these cases, the focus was not on the detail of the death, but the emotional impact on the remaining characters.

In my alter-ego’s young adult novel, 22 Scars, there are only two character deaths; a young girl who dies from leukemia, described from afar through the journal entries of her friend, and a teenager who dies in a car crash – only the aftermath of which is shown. There are a number of other ‘violent’ instances – self-harm, rape and abuse – but the detail of these scenes was again written with a young adult audience in mind: I don’t shy away, but nor do I try to glorify either the abuse or the suffering. My goal was simply to describe the reality of these terrible ordeals; I wouldn’t anticipate a ten-year-old reading it.

It’s a fine line to toe; passing death off as both easy to deal and easy to experience is in some ways an injustice to the reality of dying. To see waves of bad guys mown down with machine guns makes it seem like death is a quick pop and then you fall down and go to sleep. To watch a teenage girl slit her wrists and bleed out in a bathtub (reference: Thirteen Reasons Why) is gory and off-putting, but also belies the difficulty of such a scenario – it is not easy to cut that deep, nor does it typically result in a quick and quiet death.

The advent of cellphones and live-streaming has made it unfortunately easy to watch a real person die, and anyone whose stood by and watched will tell you: death is not easy. The body will fight to the last cell to remain alive, even as shock sets in and the victim loses consciousness. People don’t just fall down when shot; they remain alive for minutes afterward. They move around. They try desperately to stay alive.

To what extent should the realities of death be described in fiction? Is there a line between realistic sensitivity and glorification? Death will always be around, but how should it be treated in fiction?

There may be no easy answer – but I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. How do you think death should be treated in fiction?

Movie Night: Ingrid Goes West

Year: 2017
Genre: Drama
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Elizabeth Olsen, O’Shea Jackson Jr.

An unhinged social media stalker moves to LA and insinuates herself into the life of an Instagram star.

When I first saw previews for Ingrid Goes West, I was both intrigued and put off; it wasn’t clear what kind of movie it was supposed to be, and whilst I was attracted to the idea of Aubrey Plaza, who I knew from The Little Hours, playing a somewhat deranged stalker, the whole concept of of sunny LA Instagram star-based pop culture references was somewhat disenchanting.

In the end, I’m glad I ended up watching it with Mrs. Satis, because that isn’t really what it’s about. Instead, it’s really about the psychological addition to technology, and the false personas we create when hiding behind the anonymity of online forums.

This is perhaps where things goes spectacularly right – and terribly wrong. Ingrid Goes West‘s biggest asset is also its greatest flaw, and that’s its timeliness. Set in 2017, it really couldn’t be any more 2017 if it tried, and whilst highly topical, it’s immediately dated as well. Ingrid uses an iPhone 6s Plus, which is already three years out of date, and whilst there is an in-story explanation for this, it also points to the film’s era – which will be out of date by the time you read this review.

The acting is, if not Oscar-worthy, perfect for the story and the cast; Plaza’s titular Ingrid is at its best a cringe-inducing, awkward social mess, unable to communicate outside of social media and obsessed – dangerously so – with people who give her even a modicum of attention. Olsen’s Taylor Sloane is, whilst well-played, somewhat more two-dimensional – despite this being exactly the point of the character. The supporting cast are never superfluous, even at their extremes (Billy Magnussen’s character Nicky could ostensibly be autistic, but then becomes simply sinister), but their behaviors border on the unbelievable, especially toward the end.

Speaking of the ending, it left me wanting from a moral message point of view. We watch the downfall of a socially inept twenty-something as she is one-by-one ostracized by everyone she attached herself to, and (spoiler) witness her livestream an attempted suicide. And whilst the story naturally wanted to leave us with some hope, the result is internet fame – by the time she wakes up in hospital she discovers her post as trended, and millions of people are now fans, supporting her and giving her the love and attention she always dreamed of.

To me, this is simply a poor note to end on. The insinuation is that suicide – even as a cry for help – is a justifiable action so long as it gets you what you want. And for Ingrid, it does. I’d have rather seen her saved by her would-be boyfriend but without the infamy of a viral livestream; it would have shown her that there are real people in the world who care for her, without pandering to the idea that our lives only mean something if people watch it.

In the end, though, I was satisfied by the mental anguish and drama portrayed, and the fact that it does at least attempt to show that online infatuation is not the same as real-life love. Ingrid Goes West is certainly no comedy, and at its best serves a role in highlighting the difficulty in blending the real and online worlds we immerse ourselves in daily.

8/10 would watch again.