First Reformed is a film only Paul Schrader could have made, the result of more than 40 years of struggling with themes of repentance and failure on a large theological scale. We've seen glimpses of it before in the acclaimed screenplays he wrote for Martin Scorsese — in the confused penance of Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver and the self-mortification of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull — but never quite so broadly or as bare as in the new film. It's a difficult film, austere yet extreme, but it brings all of Schrader's passions and interests to a wild and awkward summation. It's a film that will divide audiences, but it seems like a satisfactory recap of everything Schrader has accomplished, his own path of redemption in a career spanning from his masterful early work to his more recent descent into the movie hell of straight-to-streaming Nicolas Cage films and the abominable Lindsay Lohan drama The Canyons.
In First Reformed Ethan Hawke, who has established himself as the most courageously chameleon-like actor of his generation, plays Reverend Toller, head of an old but barely attended church in New York. Haunted by the death of his son in Iraq and the failure of his marriage, he has become a spiritual place-keeper, holding tours of his 250-year-old sanctuary, which members of the local superchurch dismiss as "the gift shop." Plagued by stomach disorders and heavy drinking, he's losing his health and his faith at an equal pace.
When he's asked to provide counseling to pessimistic eco-terrorist Michael and his pregnant wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried) — and yes, the biblical character names are no coincidence — Toller begins to question the church's role in confronting social issues like global warming.
His efforts, like the old building in which he preaches, are overshadowed by the influence of Abundant Life, a corporate-sponsored, media-friendly congregation more concerned with promoting its brand than with good works. (In an inspired casting choice, Toller's rival church is run by Cedric Kyles, who may have dropped "the Entertainer" from his name but knows how to balance skillfully the roles of avuncular televangelist and cut-throat businessman.)
Schrader borrows — or, more fairly, synthesizes — themes from Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light and Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest, two masterpieces of austere, thoughtful filmmaking. From Bergman, he borrows the idea of a struggling clergyman who feels inadequate in comforting a couple much like Michael and Mary. From Bresson, he updates the psychological turmoil of the ailing priest being made irrelevant by his community.
Like both of his models, Schrader directs with precision, carefully observing and giving weight to the most mundane details of Toller's routine: his daily journal entries, compulsive drinking and increasing sense of doubt. This is carefully controlled filmmaking in every detail, from the brilliantly restrained performances of Hawk and Seyfried to the understated compositions. (Schrader shot the film in Academy ratio, and I suspect that many viewers attuned only to modern television screens will find it unbearably claustrophobic without knowing why.) Schrader's direction is cool, economical and unforgiving, focusing only on what is necessary. He allows the camera to move only twice, both times for a significantly hallucinatory effect.
First Reformed is a difficult film and, if the shopping mall audience with whom I saw it is any indication, a divisive one, but it challenges and provokes and never lets the viewer take it easy, even after it's over. There are a few unsettling images, but Schrader is more concerned with unsettling ideas, with pulling the viewer into Toller's thoughts, his doubts, and even his own worst decisions.
Finally, there's the question of Schrader's ending, a scene so unexpected in both style and substance that it actually earns the overused adjective "outrageous." In a film so uncompromisingly devoted to exploring Toller's inner life — even his soul, if you're inclined toward that kind of thought — Schrader concludes with a deliberate, risky move that raises the film's emotional stakes and pushes any narrative resolution solely in the hands of the viewer. (Imagine, if you will, the intellectual equivalent of 3-D.) Very few films ask us to consider real ideas or feelings in close detail. With First Reformed, Schrader goes even further, first depicting the struggle within Toller's conscience, then pushing us right into its center.