One of the most talked-about movies of the spring was “First Reformed,” Paul Schrader’s austere, intense portrait of a Protestant minister coming undone in upstate New York. The movie, starring Ethan Hawke as the Rev. Ernst Toller, explores themes that viewers versed in Mr. Schrader’s more than four-decade body of work — which includes “American Gigolo” and “Light Sleeper” (as director) and “Taxi Driver” (as screenwriter) and the critical study “Transcendental Style in Film” — will surely recognize. This is not the first time he has delved into the existential torment of a man’s soul, nor the first time he has summoned the influences of Ingmar Bergman, Robert Bresson, Carl Dreyer and other transcendental film heroes.
SCHRADER Unease. You’re withholding things that people have come to expect even if they don’t know it. But they know something is different. They know you’re not adjusting the camera. They know they’re not getting the musical cues. The tricky dance is how to keep the viewer coming toward you as you’re moving away. With Ethan it was: Every time you feel the urge to entertain, step away. Every time you feel the viewer interested in you, lean back. But he also understood that that’s a rule you’re made to break. So [in] this scene with Jeffers at the end, it’s not in the script when he starts to cry. Afterward, he said, I know we agreed that I wasn’t to show emotion, but I just felt that was the one time I should, and let’s go back and do it the other way. I said no, I think you’re right. You spotted the moment to break the rule.
The next stage is the world is only as our protagonist perceives it. You see no other reality. There’s never a scene that he’s not in. So now you’re seeing his life, you’re being filled up with his thoughts and after about 45 minutes or so, you’ve identified. How could you not identify? Then, often slowly, you have to go off the rails a little bit, a little bit, a little bit. The first few times it doesn’t bother you, but then all of a sudden [you’re] saying whoa, I’m identified with somebody that I don’t think is worthy of identification. What do I do about that.
SCHRADER This is the path that he’s meant to take. One thing I cut out of the film: When he has the [suicide bomber] vest on, he had written three entries in [his diary] and I filmed them and then decided no, it’s better to let the audience imagine what his last words are.First he writes, “magical mystery tour” and then he crosses that out. Then he writes, “Will God forgive us?” and he crosses that out. Then he writes, “I wish I could’ve chosen a more convenient way to die.” And then he closes the book. And that’s exactly Gethsemane. Take this cup away from me. Lord, take this cup of Drano away from me.Some 40 years after creating Travis Bickle and “Taxi Driver,” Paul Schrader gives us Ernst Toller and “First Reformed.”
Travis was a tightly wound loner caught in the grips of despair. He kept a diary as he grew ever more isolated from the world around him, ever more certain he needed to make a grand and violent gesture. Ernst Toller is a generation older than was Bickle, but he, too, is keeping a daily record of his increasingly dark thoughts, and he, too, comes to the conclusion he must do something bold and horrible and brutal — something that will end his own life and many others.
Schrader authored the screenplay to Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic “Taxi Driver,” and he is the writer-director of “First Reformed.” Over the last four decades, Schrader has specialized in writing and/or directing numerous films about men on dark journeys, from Robert De Niro’s paranoid brute boxer in “Raging Bull” to Nick Nolte’s troubled cop in “Affliction” to Willem Dafoe’s drug dealer in “Light Sleeper” to Nicolas Cage’s haunted paramedic in “Bringing Out the Dead.”
With “First Reformed,” Schrader delivers his most impactful work in years, with Ethan Hawke’s haunting and brilliant work as Ernst Toller joining the ranks of great lead performances in Schrader films. This is an inescapably memorable and at times almost unbearably sorrowful piece of work. The opening shot of “First Reformed” — a slow camera track toward a small, white, colonial church — could be the introduction to a horror film, and at times that would be an accurate description of the events depicted.
But there are no 18th-century ghosts or supernatural beings looming in this story. The demons come from within. The horrifying acts are committed by human beings for whom we have genuine sympathy. Hawke’s Rev. Toller is the pastor of the tiny First Reformed Church, which has a congregation of about a dozen, judging by the attendance at Sunday services. About to celebrate its 250th anniversary, the church exists mainly as a minor tourist attraction, with Toller showing visitors the trapdoor that led to a shelter for the Underground Railroad and encouraging folks to pick up a hat or a T-shirt or a trinket in the gift shop.
To say Toller is a man in crisis would be a massive understatement. He is seriously ill (blood shows up every time he urinates). He’s good for about a fifth of booze every night, as he furiously scribbles in his diary. He is haunted by the death of his only son, who was killed in action. Amanda Seyfried gives a lovely, low-key performance as the pregnant Mary, an earnest and deeply faithful First Reformed parishioner.
Mary asks Toller to help her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), a radical environmentalist who believes the world is doomed and they should not bring a child into this world. (Toller’s counseling session with Michael, with Toller carefully choosing his words and Michael passionately explaining his conspiracy theories and his anguish at what humankind has done to the planet, is a master class featuring two fine actors and expertly crafted dialogue.)
The environmental angle in “First Reformed” takes a perhaps too-convenient turn when Michael’s story arc overlaps with Toller’s run-ins with local industrialist Edward Balq (Michael Gaston). In addition to being one of the worst polluters in the nation, Balq happens to be the biggest and most influential donor to the Abundant Life Ministries, a mega-church that owns First Reformed. Cedric Kyles, better known as Cedric the Entertainer, is pitch-perfect in a straightforward dramatic role as the charismatic, deep-pocketed leader of Abundant Life, who has a soft spot for Toller but doesn’t hesitate to call him out for his drinking and his erratic behavior, and his failure to truly do God’s work.
The final act of “First Reformed” features an almost hallucinogenic spiritual trip, and a sequence of white-knuckled intensity that includes an image almost daring you to close your eyes or look away. Schrader pulls no spiritual punches.