Paul Schrader has long been credited for helping to create some of the defining films of the 70s and 80s — through his screenwriting work on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Last Temptation of Christ, among others. Lately though, it’s felt like his relevance might be forever stuck there. In 2013 he directed Bret Easton Ellis’ script for The Canyons, a dull, failed noir that was as drab as it was boring. Then there was a nutty movie starring Nic Cage as a CIA agent with dementia (Dying of the Light, 2014), and most recently, he returned with Dog Eat Dog, an unrelentingly ugly piece of work that might be the worst movie I’ve ever sat through in a theater.
The kind of “provocations for provocations'” sake artiness Schrader helped popularize was no longer all that provocative, and it seemed as if he might not know how to do anything else. At its best, Schrader’s latest, First Reformed, starring Ethan Hawke as an alcoholic reverend in the midst of a crisis, reminds you of what we miss from the artist-driven auteur age in which Schrader cut his teeth. First Reformed is bleak and bone dry, a little self-indulgent, and it screams neither “fun” nor “production values.” It is the opposite of a “romp.” But damned if it doesn’t stay with you, provoking thought using nothing but a priest and a suicidal environmentalist sitting across from each other talking. It’s devoutly art first, entertainment second, and it’s legitimately challenging, which will be refreshing for the handful of people who still want that from a movie.
Hawke plays Toller, a former military chaplain turned reverend at a “tourist church where no one attends sermons” in snowy, grey Albany, New York, looking like America’s Stalingrad. One of his few parishioners, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), asks if he can come talk to her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), who seems to be spiraling. Toller takes the drive to Mary and Michael’s, and one of the refreshing things about Schrader’s style is that he still uses a lot of medium and long shots. You can actually see the actors’ feet when Toller walks in the door, which is almost unheard of nowadays. Michael, an environmental activist, is convinced that bringing a child into the world would be cruel, citing all of the ways in which humanity is doomed because of pollution. “Sea levels are set to rise two feet by 2050. This society isn’t built to handle multiple crises.”
Toller responds with a fatalistic, let-go-and-let-God attitude, saying “reason provides no answers,” that hope and despair will always battle for supremacy in the heart of man, that faith requires courage.
The dry scene — no music and few camera angles, like much of the rest of the movie — is surprisingly resonant. Toller leaves thinking he’s affected Michael in some way, but the reverse is true. Toller is shaken, and so are we.
The conflict becomes whether men of faith like Toller need to sound the alarm to protect God’s creation, or whether they should throw their hands up and just assume it’s all going according to God’s Plan. Representing the latter viewpoint is Cedric Kyles, played by Cedric the Entertainer, doing some of the best acting work of his career as the head reverend at the megachurch that underwrites Toller’s tiny tourist trap, who preaches a kind of prosperity doctrine-adjacent faith in which “fretting is an abomination.”
To Cedric, worrying is tantamount to questioning the will of God, and when he sees Toller spiraling into anguished uncertainty over humanity’s plight, he tells him, “You’re always in the garden. Even Jesus wasn’t always in the garden. He was preaching, on the mount. He was in the temples, he was in the marketplace.”
Cedric is certainly in the marketplace, affording most of the church’s budget thanks to the donations of energy magnate Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), who’s responsible for a nearby superfund site in addition to Toller’s church’s new organ.
The conflict Schrader sets up, between caring for God’s creation vs. eternally trusting in His wisdom, is, surprisingly, more relevant than his old contemporary Martin Scorsese’s similar faith exploration in the interminable 17th century slog Silence.
Of course, Scorsese also has a big budget and a flair for spectacle that Schrader can’t match (not to mention a much greater developed sense of “fun”). And for as much as First Reformed‘s setup reminds you of all the great things about 70s’ soul-searching cinema, First Reformed‘s resolution reminds you of all its failings. Just as with most of the titans of late 20th century letters — your Philips Roth, your Johns Updike — the longer they ponder the universe and the meaning of existence, the more likely it is that their spiritual journey will lead them right back to their own dicks. Such is true in First Reformed, which goes there even after you breathe a sigh of relief thinking it won’t.
As Toller ponders faith’s place in the modern world, women are both his bane (in the form of Esther, played by Victoria Hill, a hectoring choir leader and Toller’s ex, whom he eventually tells “I despise you”), and his salvation (in the form of Seyfried, the angelic pregnant Madonna). After setting up such a relevant conflict, Toller first flirts with going full Taxi Driver (a heel turn that feels undersupported, but not uninteresting), First Reformed ends on this sour note, as if sex is somehow the answer to man’s place in the universe. A more skilled visual stylist might’ve made that work, but in the hands of stripped-down storyteller like Schrader, there’s no poetry to hide behind.
It’s a disappointing ending after such a promising opening. But despite its flaws, First Reformed proves that Paul Schrader is still worth paying attention to.