Whatever filmmaker Paul Schrader does with his remaining years on this tortured planet, the first lines of his obituary will mention the work he did four decades ago, writing the screenplays for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and playing second fiddle to star auteur Martin Scorsese. It will likely overlook 21 feature films he has directed, including standouts like Blue Collar, American Gigolo, and Auto Focus. If there is any justice, it will mention his latest, First Reformed, a ferocious drama that bears more than a small resemblance to one of his most iconic works.
In a dazzling performance, Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Toller, pastor of a small, historic church in western New York. His job is mostly symbolic. His weekly sermons draw in only a handful of parishoners. Behind his back, the pastor of a neighboring mega-church (a brilliantly cast Cedric the Entertainer) refers to his as a “souvenir church.” So when Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a young pregnant woman, asks Toller to counsel her depressed husband, Toller jumps at the chance to do something meaningful.
Her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger, evoking a young Mark Ruffalo) is an environmental activist who is losing his battle with despair. In a long, luxurious scene together, Toller tries to counsel him, and Schrader gives equal time to both Michael’s frustrations and Toller’s thoughtful faith. “This social structure can’t survive the stress of multiple crises,” Michael tells him. Maybe neither can Toller, who eventually comes to shoulder the burden of Michael’s activism.
Over the course of Schrader’s incisive script, Toller’s past and current traumas collide, aided by professional pressure, and he starts to lose the battle with himself. He channels his own personal demons into a newfound political spirit that puts him at odds with the benefactor of his church (Michael Gaston), a corporate giant responsible for some nasty environmental degradation.
Schrader’s brilliant film seamlessly incorporates the personal, the political, and the spiritual into one dynamic and immersive narrative. He stays close to Toller’s perspective, leaning on Hawke’s brooding naturalism to draw us in. It’s a complex role that Hawke, who does manic desperation and casual hipsterism equally well, uses his full range of acting tools to embody. As Toller internalizes Michael’s frustrations, his despair becomes universal. His efforts to counsel and communicate produce one failure after another, and in his desperation, he flirts with the course of the zealot: considering violence and martyrdom as his only salvation. Hasn’t anyone frustrated with the realities of making change considered, in their darkest moments, doing the same?
It’s a story Schrader has told before in a different setting. There is the naive man haunted by violence (in Taxi Driver, it’s the Vietnam War; here, it’s a personal trauma in Toller’s past), the young blonde woman he sees as his salvation, the strides toward violence when he realizes she cannot provide it, and the violent, ambiguous ending. There is even a nod to the famous shot of Travis Bickle watching an Alka-Seltzer fizz in his water; in First Reformed, it’s Pepto-Bismol in a whiskey. Some might argue that it recalls Schrader’s most famous work too specifically, and that First Reformed fails to stand on its own. I say, if you’re going to steal, then steal from the best. Especially when it’s yourself.
First Reformed opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema and Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema.