By Noah Gittell
Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” is not a film for the faint of heart, the weak of mind, or the shallow in spirit. It’s the kind of ambitious project Hollywood has long since forgone and even most independent directors are too skittish to try. All it takes is a septuagenarian director in his fifth decade of filmmaking, fusing the personal, political, spiritual, and galactic with such precision and total cohesion. Forty-two years after he burst onto the scene writing “Taxi Driver,” Schrader is still channeling his fury at the world into beautiful and urgent film art.
Ethan Hawke is brilliant as Reverend Toller, pastor at a small church in upstate New York. He has little sense of purpose; only a handful of parishioners show up to his weekly sermons, and his church is mostly kept standing due to its historical significance as a refuge for escaped slaves. So when the pregnant Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks him to counsel her depressed husband Michael (Phillip Ettinger), a radical environmentalist losing his battle with despair, Toller jumps at the chance to have an impact.
The first clue that “First Reformed” is something special comes in this initial conversation between Toller and Michael. It’s a meaty back-and-forth, and Schrader lets us luxuriate in the space between them, giving credence and respect to both Michael’s frustrations and Toller’s sensible wisdom. Hawke never reaches for the spotlight in this scene, as some actors would. He cedes ground to the more dominant character, saving his own fireworks for when the script demands it. It is an altogether magnificent performance, utilizing both his simmering intensity and hipster detachment to make his tormented protagonist believable and sympathetic.
As events unfold, Toller’s journey brings him out of the ethereal realm and into the dirt. After becoming convinced of the righteousness of environmentalism, he becomes fixated on Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), the capitalist titan who is bankrolling his church and also happens to be one of the world’s biggest polluters. As we watch Toller torn between his faith and his duty as a citizen of the world (which, of course, should not be in conflict but often are), Schrader’s screenplay skillfully balances the ephemeral and the ancient, connecting Toller’s struggle with his inner demons to the real-world demons who walk among us.
It’s a powerful tale that disguises its themes and unearths them at its own measured pace. In one scene, we are deeply grounded in Toller’s practical concerns. In another, we have been transported to a psychedelic space, where Schrader envisions a radical collision of religion and science. Okay, there is a lot to digest in “First Reformed,” but with Schrader owning authorship over every moment, I promise you will never feel lost or confused, except perhaps in its deliciously ambiguous final shot, which will leave you with much to discuss as you drive home. You can almost feel Schrader giggling when the scene cuts to black.
Still, as original as “First Reformed” feels compared to the paint-by-numbers blockbusters of today, you’ll have no choice but to chew over the similarities to Schrader’s iconic first work. Just like in “Taxi Driver,” there is the lead character tormented by violence in his past, the young blonde he sees as his salvation, his deep despair when he realizes she may not be able to provide it, and a dalliance with martyrdom as the solution to life’s inexorable loneliness. That such themes remain relevant — still thrilling — forty years later, speaks either to our inability to progress as a culture, or the talents of a timeless artist. Either way, “First Reformed” is the first true masterpiece of 2018.
My Rating: See it in the theater