For 40 years, Paul Schrader has made movies about serious, driven men isolated by deep-seated philosophical conflicts. From “American Gigolo” to “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” to “Affliction” — not to mention the “Taxi Driver” screenplay for which he’s best known — Schrader’s stone-faced protagonists are guided by a spiritual sense of purpose that reflects his Calvinist upbringing. With “First Reformed,” that obsession takes center stage in an absorbing late period achievement that brings Schrader’s talent back into focus.
“First Reformed” consolidates the decades of bubbling guilt and frustration experienced by so many Schrader protagonists into a single enraged priest, played with brilliant layers of guilt and discontent by Ethan Hawke. It’s the best work in years for both men, a fascinating meditation on inner turmoil in which doing the right thing can lead down many wrong directions.
Schrader unapologetically builds his drama on a familiar reference point: With Hawke as ex-military pastor Toller, who records his crisis of faith and growing environmental concerns in a journal that provides the movie’s voiceover, it’s “Diary of a Country Priest” for the age of global warming.
Like that Robert Bresson staple, Schrader’s drama unfolds against a tranquil backdrop and muted soundscape, with painterly visuals that underscore the story’s meditational qualities. Ever since the publication of his seminal “Transcendental Cinema” book in the seventies, Schrader has been obsessed with the understated poetry of heavyweight auteurs ranging from Ozu to Bresson and Dreyer, and while he doesn’t match the depth of their narrative prowess with “First Reformed,” he channels their elegance and concision for a haunting story rich with contemporary ramifications.
When he isn’t scribbling in his journal and drinking away his loneliness, Toller runs the small church of the title, a historic upstate building with history stretching back to the 18th century. He spends most of his time running tours and delivering sermons to a dwindling local audience, seemingly forgotten by the larger branch as anything but a caretaker for a historical footnote. That’s when he’s asked for help by the pious Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who’s with child and under pressure from her radical environmentalist husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) to get an abortion.
Toller pays the couple a house visit, and engages in a theological debate about Michael’s apocalyptic fears about the world’s dwindling environment. For a moment, Schrader’s scripts devolves into heavy-handed moralizing, but that’s just a starting point for the evolution of Toller’s worldview. The priest, who reveals how his own son’s death at war contributed to his somber lifestyle, finds himself riveted by Michael’s secular fears for the planet — and eventually comes to believe them himself.
As the quiet, pastoral setting takes hold, Michael drops out of the picture and Toller takes a more active role in Mary’s life, while the nature of their relationship remains unclear. Late night research leads him to uncover a troubling connection between one of his main benefactors and the polluted waters nearby, and as a ceremony for the church’s 250th anniversary approaches, Toller finds himself trapped between professional allegiances and a developing activism that suggests he could turn psychotic at any moment. As the eerie atmosphere starts to suggest the prospects of violence right around the corner, Hawke, stern and scowling throughout, gives one of his most arresting performances in years as a frock-clad Travis Bickle.
Meanwhile, Schrader sketches out an alienated world. The First Reformed church is a natural setting for exploring the commercialization of faith, with its flimsy gift shop and broken organ epitomizing the emptiness that afflicts Toller’s efforts to mine substance from his job. According to his doctor, Toller’s alcoholism might be killing him, and the upper management from the church’s main branch (a surprisingly serious Cedric the Entertainer) pays him no heed. Toller naturally gravitates towards the only goal that seems to have meaning in his life: Helping Mary with her pregnancy and wrestling with Michael’s desire to address his concerns through violence.
Toller’s path toward environmental enlightenment involves many unexpected twists, from the use of a Neil Young song at an activist funeral to a psychedelic sequence in which he literally floats through the cosmos. But unlike the messy and at times assaultive style of his previous effort, the deranged crime saga “Dog Eat Dog,” these ingredients coalesce around a larger goal. “First Reformed” is at times unwieldy and obvious, overemphasizing Toller’s righteous, biblical drive, but Schrader overcomes many of these shortcomings with a mounting intrigue around his character’s psychological disarray.
As the gravitas that Hawke and Seyfried bring to their melancholic roles takes hold, Toller’s relationship to Mary deepens its intimate ramifications and gives the movie a soulful core. Even a far-out green screen sequence that threatens to topple the entire movie manages to deepen the mysteriousness of their circumstances, and how much of these events stem from Toller’s own disturbed mind. Similar to Larry Fessenden’s brand of ecological horror films (“The Last Winter,” “Wendigo”), the more twisted elements of Schrader’s storytelling are grounded in a profound socially conscious intent.
That’s especially true in the gripping finale, a suspenseful moment in which Toller confronts his contradictory impulses with a bloody, unexpected act that brings the full scope of the movie’s ambition into focus. Set to “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” (a wry nod by Schrader to “Night of the Hunter”), the movie’s conclusion pits religion against personal desire in remarkably visceral terms.
It’s unclear by the end whether Toller’s battle has become a lost cause, but Schrader leaves us with the impression that facing defeat with defiance can feel like a triumph on its own terms. For a director who has zigged and zagged with mixed results over the years, it’s a surprisingly sharp mission statement.
“First Reformed” premiered at the Venice International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.