Legendary screenwriter (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and director (Mishima, Cat People) Paul Schrader returns to form with a startling, sombre and quite extraordinary Bergmanesque portrait of a priest tortured by his own personal demons.
“I’m God’s lonely man,” Travis Bickle stated in Paul Schrader’s first script. Loneliness, desperation and guilt are seeded throughout his new film, First Reformed, which stands as his best effort in decades. A magnificent Ethan Hawke plays Pastor Tuller of the Dutch Reform Church. Following a personal tragedy, he has been gifted an easy gig: the tending of a heritage church famed for its historic importance – and nicknamed the ‘souvenir shop’ – but with a virtually non-existent congregation. In the evenings, he finds consolation in writing a journal examining his failing faith which he intends to destroy after a year.
A mixture of therapy and literary confessional, the whisky bottle is also close at hand to offer its own deceptive numbness. One of the very few members of his church is an expectant mother, obviously named Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who calls on him to help counsel her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmentalist whose horror at the apocalyptic trending of environmental disaster is so great that he is seriously questioning the wisdom of allowing Mary’s pregnancy to reach term. The trouble becomes more serious when Mary finds a suicide vest in the garage.
The priest’s counsel doesn’t have the intended conclusion and Tuller is driven deeper into himself and away from the world. His churches belongs to a Mega Church-style organisation called Abundant Life headed by, in a mischievous piece of casting, Cedric the Entertainer as Pastor Jeffers. Here, Toller has friends and support, especially in the choir director (Victoria Hill), who wishes to soothe Toller’s woes, or at the very least make sure he’s looking after himself. However, there are also pressures with Jeffers keen on organising the 250th anniversary of the church, financed by one of the local factories that Michael has targeted as a major polluter.
Taking on Michael’s political beliefs about the world, Tuller finds himself at odds with his own church and members of his congregation. He takes the environmental threat as a personal affront to God’s work and pens a sermon ‘Will God Forgive Us?’. Torn between Michael’s despair and his own need for hope, Tuller is a raw nerve whose barely concealed rage has finally found a channel to run in. Following the disappointments of Dog Eat Dog and the excremental The Canyons, Schrader has returned to the classics: Bresson, Bergman and a smidge of Tarkovsky. He boxes Tuller into a 1:33 frame and even as his protagonist succumbs increasingly to the consolations of the bottle, Schrader directs a sober film that represses its own rage almost as much as Tuller.
Music is largely eschewed as the director lets his script sing and there are long scenes of two people arguing their way through the genuine moral case for survival in the face of such indifference and vandalism. As with Downsizing – seen earlier in Venice – First Reformed isn’t simply concerned about the environment, it is genuinely horrified and it is this honest rage – rather than the sociopathy of Travis Bickle – that makes this such a wonderful and deeply necessary tale. Hawke’s performance is his most mature to date, a masterpiece of a man who cannot work himself out and yet is compelled to try. As his grip on himself is lost so the film loosens its tight discipline but the ambivalence of the ending is a long way from catharsis.