Written and Directed by Paul Schrader | 113 min | Hoopla
First off, let me say what a thrill it is to be seeing a Paul Schrader picture in cinemas. Here’s a filmmaker and screenwriter who’s been out in the wilderness for years, making movies largely unseen and/or critically reviled, despite the fact he’s one of Martin Scorcese’s key collaborators, having written Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ, and on his own having directed films like American Gigolo, The Comfort of Strangers, and Affliction. He shows real form here with a fascinating, gritty drama grappling with multiple themes—activism, theology, and mortality.
Schrader casts Ethan Hawke in his lead, an actor with a career full of awkwardly bruised men. He’s Reverend Ernst Toller of the First Reformed Church somewhere in upper New York State. It’s a 250-year-old tourist attraction without much of a congregation. Toller’s a former army chaplain having lost his son to war and his marriage to the grief that followed the son’s death. He’s also self-medicating a chronic stomach ailment with alcohol. A pregnant woman amongst his slight flock, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), asks him to speak to her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger, channeling Mark Ruffalo circa You Can Count On Me). He’s an eco-warrior who’s been arrested one too many times. Michael despairs for the world his child will grow up in.
As Toller’s life gets wrapped up in the lives of this couple, his health begins to fail. The guilt he’s managing having had an affair with a woman (Victoria Hill) from a nearby church isn’t helping, and he’s expected to help organize the reconsecration of First Reformed on its anniversary, with the help of Reverend Joel Jeffers (Cedric The Entertainer), who attracts the political will and corporate bucks needed to keep the church open, including money from big polluters.
Schrader has always been one to gaze into the darkness in men’s souls, looking for the terrifying existential truths hidden there. First Reformed is no different, shot with a kind of anti-style, lots of medium shots, few cuts, no soundtrack to speak of beyond moody background hums, and a grey, bleak wintry light that most Canadians will recognize. In fact, the film it most reminds me of is David Cronenberg’s Stephen King adaptation, The Dead Zone, with its tragic, well-meaning hero turned precognitive, embracing violence for the greater good of the planet. I understand Schrader has also borrowed liberally from Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, a film that remains unseen by me.
Whatever pilfering he’s doing, this can’t help but feel like an original work, largely in its strident, relevant politics. It’s undeniably critical of our all-consuming, all-destroying way of life, how we’re treating the planet, and how the church has refused to demand better of people, to take up the cause of nature. If Schrader’s film doesn’t quite stick the landing, failing to entirely sell either Toller’s impotent rage or a final connection between two characters, it doesn’t diminish the journey overall.