Schrader Reformed

First Reformed
(USA, 113 min.)
Written and directed by Paul Schrader
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Philip Ettinger, Cedric Kyles, Victoria Hill
Paul Schrader's First Reformed
Preach, Paul Schrader, preach! Schrader returns with his best film yet as a director. First Reformed is a dark, brooding, and suspenseful masterwork of tone, character, and real world urgency. After the disaster of The Canyons, which I actually sorta liked despite its flaws and awful lead performance by James Deen, Schrader seemed relegated to B-level obscurity. He’s back, stronger than ever, and ready to make those who doubted him say a few rosaries.

First Reformed is the parable of a troubled priest, Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), who undergoes a profound crisis in faith when a young member of his parish, Mary (Amanda Seyfried, a scene stealer of raw emotion), requests guidance for her tormented husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael draws Toller into a paranoid web of environmental concerns and conspiratorial whispers as he rambles about the impending ecological apocalypse foreshadowing hell on earth.

This young man has the devil in him, a rotten kind of hopelessness that can’t fathom bringing a child into a world tainted by pollution and corruption. Toller struggles to reconcile the redundancy of his own existence in light of Michael’s dire forecast. Working as the priest of a sparsely attended colonial church that’s more of a tourist destination than a parish, guidance isn’t really Toller’s forte, even when it comes to tours. Michael’s troubles lead the reverend to question the hope for God’s world that he instills in his congregation week by week. Upcoming preparations for the church’s milestone birthday underscore the futility of it all as he meets with fellow priests and attends rehearsals of off-key youth choirs that are hardly worth salvation.

Schrader paces Reverend Toller’s descent with measured mercilessness. The film adopts a rhythm of malaise as Toller’s chores become an empty ritual of praying, drinking, and pissing. There’s something rotten in him as well, as evidence by the blood in his toilet bowl, but it’s really his soul that is infected with something dark and cancerous. His sermons are nothing but empty, misleading gestures. He himself doesn’t believe that the man upstairs can pull through for humanity.

Hawke gives a performance of excellent self-discipline as the troubled Toller. The actor has been on a hot streak lately offering some of his best work with Born to Be Blue and Maudie, and First Reformed ranks among the finest performances of Hawke’s career as he plays a man of faith shackled by his reluctance to save himself. Toller might be an unrepentant, cruel, and troubled asshole, but one can see a good and sincere man struggling to stay alight within the priest’s failing soul. Lubricating his demons with cocktails of whiskey and Pepto-Bismol, Toller descends into a downward spiral that only few filmmakers like Schrader can execute. One is enrapt by the violence and darkness of First Reformed’s final act, but one cannot at one moment abandon hope for Toller.

Toller’s crisis in faith plays out in claustrophobic Academy ratio as the priest feels suffocated by the realization that he is leading sheep to slaughter. False hope is wicked when the world is beyond repair. Schrader’s aesthetic is one of taut and pensive control. He fills First Reformed with an atmosphere of brooding dread and hopelessness, which can be no easy task while shooting in stirring and seemingly innocent churches that have withstood centuries of doubt. The dramatic lighting often bathes the action in compositions with crisp tones to give First Reformed a pure, down to earth feel, but Schrader disrupts the natural order of Toller’s world during the hard-drinking priest’s nocturnal episodes of doubt. The light catches Hawke’s beady eyes to reflect eerily off his pupils from the shadows. It’s like watching flickers of the devil’s black magic at work. First Reformed might not invite one to believe in God, but one leaves assured this world is Satan’s business.

It’s crazy to think that none of Schrader’s screenplays—Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Affliction—have been nominated for Academy Awards despite their fearlessness and ongoing influence on the filmmakers of today. It’s barely halfway through the year, but if there’s any justice, people will be talking about First Reformed come December. It’s a return to form for one of the mavericks of American cinema. Can I get an "Amen"?

First Reformed opens in select cities from ABMO Films beginning June 1. It screens in Toronto at the Varsity and in Ottawa at The ByTowne on June 29.