To me the ending of First Reformed (2017) was a bit of a strange cinematic experience.
Why would Reverend Toller do things like strapping a wire around him, and attempting to drink washroom cleaner?
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First of all I must say that I felt quite excited to see someone opened up a post for First Reformed. I watched the film a few days ago and to be honest I haven't still gotten myself out of the the impression that this movie has had upon me. I think it's a stylish and thought-provoking film.
In my humble opinion, I consider Reverend Toller's suicide attempt as a kind of uprising. I think this was his way of reacting against those manufacturing companies and facilities that cause a great deal of damage and harm to the enviroment and jeopardize the condition of human life. This is my personal reflection on the ending of the film, however I cannot help but thinking his particular choice of materials he used to murder himself. Why a wire and a washroom clenear? Again if you look at the way I viewed it, it may be construed as an attempt to show the world that ''the world is in danger so we must do something about it''. On the other hand, it was a wire and a washroom cleaner because those were items that were around. I am not familiar with the religious practices that reverends perform, but there's also a possibility that the wire that he strapped around his body was something he frequently had at his disposal. And a washroom cleaner is a washroom cleaner. So these things were actually very nearby for him to find.
Going through what I have just written as an answer, I realized I couldn't express as openly as I I wanted to. It was not my intention to drift away from the topic, so my apologies for that. But this was how I feel about the ending in general. I look forward to hear yours.
The "wire" is actually barbed-wire and hence the bleeding when Toller wraps it around his torso. It alludes to a self applied bloody "Crown of Thorns" as Toller hurtles towards martyrdom.
Toller knew he almost certainly had a cancerous tumor in his digestive system which had afflicted him with much stomach pain. The Drano suicide method I saw as Toller's way of striking back at the disease on his way to meeting his maker!
I also assumed that the barbed wire was the same he found outside the church. Either way, I believe him wrapping the wire around his body was an act of atonement for the environmental negligence which killed the rabbit--his own negligence, rather than the manufacturing company's. Using Drano as a method of suicide emphasizes the contradiction in the fact that he has been polluting his own body for the entire picture, while increasingly becoming obsessed with the serious dangers of environmental pollution.
You may have already considered this, but Paul Schrader has said the ending is intentionally set up for multiple interpretations--in the director's commentary on the blu-ray, Schrader has said the major question has to do with whether or not Mary is actually present or is a hallucinogenic vision Ernst Toller has on the verge of death. I would say there is a secondary question here as well--is the suicide vest still armed?
The way I see it, there are at least four possible interpretations to the ending here.
1) Reverend Ernst Toller arms the suicide vest, but (somehow) disarms it when he sees Mary. He is about to commit suicide by drinking Drano, when Mary (somehow) discovers him, and the two express their feelings for each other in a passionate kiss.
2) Reverend Ernst Toller arms the suicide vest, but (somehow) disarms it when he sees Mary. He commits suicide by drinking Drano and has a dying hallucination that Mary discovers him and the two express their feelings for each other in a passionate kiss.
3) Reverend Ernst Toller arms the suicide vest and leaves it armed, even when he sees Mary. He is about to commit suicide by drinking Drano, when Mary (somehow) discovers him. The two express their feelings for each other in a passionate kiss, but the suicide vest is still armed. It goes off, killing Ernst, Mary, and a great many others in the church.
4) Reverend Ernst Toller arms the suicide vest and leaves it armed, even when he sees Mary. He commits suicide by drinking Drano and has a dying hallucination that Mary discovers him and the two express their feelings for each other in a passionate kiss. Ernst has already died when the suicide vest goes off, potentially killing Mary and a great many others in the church.
Beyond this, I think there exists an overwhelming amount of possible interpretations regarding the specifics here. One question I have not addressed--is the suicide vest timed or does it require a manual detonation? This question opens up at least two additional possibilities to the interpretations above, and I imagine there are several other great questions I have overlooked.
Regardless of the narrative interpretation, everything that is going on here is very rich thematically. I think this is both a movie about the dangers of extremism and the complacency and social negligence which creates it. I like the idea of his suicide being a kind of uprising, although I also like the idea of a connection with Mary (her unborn child representing a further connection with the son he is grieving) giving him the human connection he needs and so adamantly rejects throughout the film. As Reverend Ernst Toller originally suggested to Michael, human connection is the hope in an otherwise endangered and terrifying world.
I believe that the ending was about answering a question stated by Michael during his conversation with Reverend Toller, to which no answer was given during the conversation:
What was the purpose of their death?
When he saw Mary entering the church he realized the grave consequences of what he wanted to do. Killing so many people, both guilty and innocent of crimes against the environment, would raise the same question. What would be the purpose of their death? So he quickly changed his actions to another topic from the conversation with Michael - martyrdom. He wrapped himself in the barbed wire, which is most likely a reference to Jesus' crown of thorns. And decided to become a martyr, by killing himself. The drain cleaner was used by him earlier to clean the toilet, so he chose this way to kill himself since he didn't have a gun or any other way to commit suicide.
So why did he want to blow himself up in the first place? Maybe he already had the test's results and he knew he would die soon, so he decided to give some purpose to his death, that's why he sewed on a picture of the activists on his vest and wanted to do it dureing a televised event.
EDIT: Here is an explanation by the director of the movie himself:
“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 is. This is exactly what it looks like: It looks like one long kiss. And that’s the last thing he sees.”