After the dark and dismal days of ‘The Canyons’ and ‘The Dying of the Light,’ writer-director Paul Schrader is back in a big way. “Return to form” may be the biggest cliché in film criticism, but I’m hard pressed to find a more apt description for ‘First Reformed.’ The religious drama, starring a superb Ethan Hawke as a small town chaplain living a solitary life following the death of his son, takes everything that makes ‘Taxi Driver’ and Schrader’s other work so fantastic—the psychological complexity, calculated risk-taking, and darkly humorous tension—and catapults it into a 21st century narrative with immediate, real-world consequence.
Anyone familiar with ‘Taxi Driver’ can begin to see its outlines in ‘First Reformed’: Hawke’s Reverend Toller is a buttoned-up Bickle, operating a small tourist parish in upstate New York that once acted as a stop along the Underground Railroad and is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary. He’s almost always alone, and seems to prefer it that way, shooing away the anxious advances of Esther (Victoria Hill) and journaling regularly at his desk each night. Toller’s prayer-like journaling narrates much of the film, offering us insight into the somersaults of his psyche as we learn his solitary existence isn’t as simple as it seems. For one, he’s still wracked with guilt over the death of his son in Iraq, as he was the one who encouraged him to join the military. And more pressingly, he’s now incredibly ill, likely with stomach cancer, and doesn’t seem to have much longer to live.
What would have been a slow and quiet demise is interrupted by the arrival of Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and her environmental activist husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). By seeking Toller’s intervention into the depression and radical behavior of her husband, Mary sets off a chain of events that, like some divine disease, threatens to undo Toller from the inside out, taking more than just his body with him.
Between its use of Academy ratio and shots that pay homage to greats like Ozu, Godard, and Bresson, ‘First Reformed’ is a filmmaker’s film, and it rewards those familiar with Schrader’s many influences. (The writer-director is notorious for his strict Calvinist upbringing, which prevented him from seeing movies before the age of 17. He claims that, as a result of not watching contemporary films growing up, his influences are uniquely concentrated into those masters he first discovered with a fully-formed brain.) There are some truly bizarre moments of levitation, hallucination, and seemingly impossible violence that are bound to thrill fans of dream-like cinema and these early greats.
That being said, the film’s sharp writing and excellent performances keep it feeling immediate and accessible, not too dense with reference to be unrecognizable to the casual moviegoer. Hawke gets a few sharp, honest laughs, even amidst the darkness and philosophy of everything, and is generally spectacular in his restrained portrayal of a man holding a world of conflict inside him. The velvety cinematography of Alexander Dynan also makes the film a visual treat—the image of Toller standing amidst a hazardous wasteland during a lavender dawn deserves an award alone.
Although its third act threatens to make a caricature of Hawke’s Reverend Toller and his desperate cause, ‘First Reformed’ ultimately evades this problem, choosing painfully fascinating questions and lurid, can’t-look-away violence in place of big revelations or moralizing conclusions. Paul Schrader always said he wouldn’t make a film that explored the religiosity of his upbringing, but thank God he did.