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.