Back in the 1970s, Paul Schrader was one of the most original and muscular voices of the New Hollywood generation. He also seemed to be one of the most troubled. Before writing such provocative screenplays as Taxi Driver and Rolling Thunder, which got inside the heads of disturbed loners hell-bent on almost-Biblical quests for righteous vengeance, Schrader grew up in a strict Calvinist household where movies and other pleasures where forbidden. A kind of extreme existential searching has informed his art ever since. His movies are like wrestling matches between the sacred and the profane.
Since the early ‘80s, however, Schrader’s films have been decidedly hit or miss. Whether as a writer or director (or both), his highs have been as high as anyone’s (Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ) and his lows as low (The Canyons). Schrader’s latest, First Reformed, isn’t quite as great as his most powerful works, but it’s easily his best — and most personal — movie since 1997’s Affliction, thanks to an unshakeable performance from Ethan Hawke.
Hawke plays Reverend Toller, a small-town priest and former Army chaplain grappling with his faith. Toller’s church is tiny, historic 18th-century shoebox built by Dutch abolitionists, but his flock has shrunken to the point where most of the pews are empty. Especially compared to a neighboring megachurch called Abundant Life run by a genial pastor played by Cedric Kyles (a.k.a. Cedric the Entertainer). Toller half-jokingly refers to his outpost as “the souvenir shop.”
Toller once had a wife and son, but he’s alone now. His son was killed in Iraq and his marriage buckled under the strain. He’s also wrestling with his mission – sick both spiritually and physically, chasing tumblers of whiskey with medicine for his stomach. Into all of this comes a pregnant parishioner named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) seeking advice when her environmental-activist husband (Philip Ettinger) is mired in deep depression at the thought of bringing a new life into such a cruel world. A suicide vest that she finds in their garage hints that he may be thinking of taking others with him.
None of this is particularly surprising. In Schrader’s films the world really is a cruel place. The problem is, Toller doesn’t exactly disagree with him. How can he talk a man out of something he himself has probably considered late at night? This is pretty bleak stuff, to be sure. But Hawke, whose weathered, etched face conveys soul-sick malaise, makes a convincing messenger. His Toller writes his deepest doubts into a long-hand diary – a confessional of sorts. And in voiceovers, we listen in as he seems to pace his own stations of the cross, coming more and more unraveled much like Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle did in Taxi Driver. It’s just a matter of time before he finds salvation either through God or violence.
First Reformed is a bleak, punishing movie and the furthest thing imaginable from an easy crowdpleaser. But Hawke juices it with an austere sense of grace. I found it hard to follow Toller down every path he takes — some are harder to buy than others. But I never doubted Schrader’s belief in his characters, their sins, and the severity of their troubled souls. B