“First Reformed” redeems the career of one of the cinema’s great writer-directors, rescuing Paul Schrader from the wilderness of Nicolas Cage B-thrillers and the hell of begging Lindsay Lohan to show up in “The Canyons.”
It’s a powerful, disturbing crisis of faith drama that takes on the raiments of a thriller, and a tour de force for the understated acting of Ethan Hawke. As Reverend Toller, a lonely, sickly pastor at an historic church nicknamed “The Gift Shop,” because more people take tours of it than attend it, Hawke is the very picture of grief, remorse and guilt, a man of the cloth questioning his faith, whether he’s lived a purpose-filled life, and if the death he sees just over his shoulder will have any value either.
Could this be Hawke’s Oscar?
Toller gives sermons to a single-digit congregation, and tours, presides over funerals and does light yard work and plumbing at First Reformed, a 250 year-old white clapboard Dutch Colonial house of worship in rural New York. But he’s got a cough. And he’s started keeping a journal.
“When writing about oneself, you should show no mercy.”
He tries to keep it righteous, but struggles with the petty indignities of his shrinking world and diminishing expectations. He lives a spartan life in an unfurnished parsonage where he writes and drinks. In the ever-grey skies of a late New York winter, he ponders “discernment,” “despair” and belief.
All of those are tested when a young couple come to him for guidance. Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is pregnant. Michael (Philip Ettinger, in a deflated, depressed performance) doesn’t want the baby. In the house they rent, he’s covered the walls with hotos of environmental crimes and memorials to murdered environmentalists. His computer is constantly on a “rising global temperature” tracking map. He just got out of jail in Canada for some sort of protest there.
And he cannot see bringing a baby into a world that could hit “unlive-ability” by the child’s 33rd birthday.
“Can God forgive us?” is the only question that matters.
Reverend Toller has answers to some questions, words of comfort for others. He notes in his journal how he treasures this debate and hopes it can continue.
But he’s got less spiritual challenges ahead. He’s basically on the payroll of a nearby megachurch, a caretaker of this historic stop on the Underground Railroad. And the boss, Reverend Jeffrees (Cedric Kyles) is worried about the state of the building that’s about to receive a widely publicized re-consecration, and about Toller.
“Even pastors need a pastor,” he offers.
Every now and then, the comedian known as Cedric the Entertainer gets a serious part that’s perfect for him, and this is one of those occasions. He is reality itself as a jovial preacher who is no-nonsense in running this big business, Abundant Life, which is politically-connected and underwritten, in part, by a big local energy concern.
As Toller goes deeper down the rabbit hole with Michael, he questions this, tries to reconcile it with the humility and poverty of Jesus. And he puts off that medical exam that adoring choir director Esther (Victoria Hill, heartbreaking) is pushing him toward.
It’s no surprise that Schrader, who scripted “Mishima” and “Affliction” and “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” has something to say about serious matters of the psyche and soul. The film’s immaculate, chilly script makes you think, and has but a single off-key word, Toller recalling wandering into the sanctuary “and falling asleep on a bench.” Wouldn’t a pastor know a pew when he slept on one?
There is no music in the film, save for church singing, until the church organ is fixed. We hear the history of the place in every creak of the floors, and sense the isolated joylessness of Toller’s world and life in the silence.
Some things come to pass expected, others as edge-of-your-seat surprises.
Through it all, Hawke broods, questions, argues and pleads like a broken man without the strength or will to do any of those things. His burden is borne in silence, with only the scratching of pen onto paper to underscore his darker and darker thoughts.
It’s a magnificent performance, buttressed with finely-tuned supporting work from Kyles, Seyfried, Ettinger and Michael Gaston (as a perfectly thin-skinned magnate/philanthropist/polluter).
And Schrader, one of our most cerebral and spiritual filmmakers, a throw-back to the Golden Age of “smart” mainstream movies — the ’70s — delivers one more masterpiece, and delivers himself from Hollywood B-movie purgatory as he does.
MPAA Rating: R for some disturbing violent images
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Antonio Kyles
Credits: Written and directed by Paul Schrader. An A24 release.
Running time: 1:48