Knowing the personal history of a filmmaker isn’t necessary, but at times, it can be helpful. In the case of writer-director Paul Schrader, it’s almost essential in understanding the buried waves of faith, guilt and reconciliation that’s been at the heart of his films for several decades now.
Raised as a Dutch Calvinist, he came to films later in his youth. Once he discovered their power, the religious themes embedded in him became a central force in his work, endlessly working and re-working the conflict of man and a higher authority in fascinating and cathartic ways. In his films with Martin Scorsese — especially his screenplays for Taxi Driver (1976) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1987) — Schrader authored some of the most powerful explorations of faith and man’s inherent struggle with nature.
All of this is to say First Reformed is yet another attempt for the director to assuage some of those complicated feelings. And if this sounds especially challenging, it is. And quite the heavy film. But not one without its merits, whose supremely unnerving and stringent ideas has stuck with me for several weeks now after first seeing it.
Starring Ethan Hawke as minister Ernst Toller of the antiquated First Reformed Church, he’s a priest going through some especially hard times. A crisis of faith is an understatement. Dutifully pouring whiskey into his cereal each morning and drinking even more throughout his mostly isolated days, Toller’s collapsing worldview doesn’t get any easier when he meets a young couple in his dwindling audience.
The wife (played wonderfully by Amanda Seyfried) asks him to speak with her husband (Philip Ettinger) about his recent depression. With a baby on the way, she’s naturally concerned, especially after he expresses the wish to have the baby aborted since his experience with environmental activist groups has left him hopeless and lost about Earth’s future. You know, global warming and all.
It doesn’t take long to enlist Hawke’s conflicted priest to the husband’s point of view, even after the husband takes drastic measures. Hawke’s Reverend Toller spirals further into doubt, alcoholism and confused sentiments. Add to the fact he may have terminal cancer and is recording all his thoughts in a disturbing stream of consciousness voice-over narration, and Hawke delivers a mesmerizing performance, rife with angst and twitching body language. Portraying someone sliding into a dark mirror image of himself is always tricky, but he makes it believable and his voice-over, which serves as the anchor of the film’s mordant view, lulls one into a state of slight identifiable agreement. Even when things go off the rails, we sort of understand.
Firmly rooted in Schrader’s lifelong exploration of man’s tortured rhetoric with his spirituality, it also comes the closest to Schrader cribbing a Robert Bresson film. Call this his Diary of a Country Priest (1951). If Schrader has been mimicking Bresson’s transcendental style for decades now, First Reformed is almost a distillation of everything from the cancer Travis Bickle believes he has in Taxi Driver (1976) to the simple “man in a room” idea Schrader has often curated most of his scripts around. If nothing else, First Reformed is exciting for the way in which he’s been working out the Bresson kinks since the mid-70’s.
Shot in the same austere style as the film’s tone, I think repeat viewings will only enrich this film. Getting through the first half, which is basically a series of very dense conversations about God, free will, man’s place in nature and other theories of relationships, can be exhausting, but it’s these contemplative moments that usher in the hyperbolic and manic emotions of the film’s final third. First Reformed exemplifies how even the most pious can be worn away over time by the vagaries of human nature, and then brought back from the precipice when they least expect it. Heavy, indeed.
(Portions of this review were previously published when the film premiered at the 2018 Dallas International Film Festival.)
First Reformed opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday June 1.