When he's on his game, Paul Schrader does spiritual torment with more conviction than any filmmaker this side of Ingmar Bergman. In Taxi Driver, he gave us Travis Bickle, "God's lonely man," an isolated drifter who finds meaning only through the purging power of violence. With his new film, First Reformed, Schrader creates a similar seeker, a small-town priest haunted by an overarching question: Will God forgive us? And if he won't, what's the point?
Visually, Taxi Driver was 100 percent a Martin Scorsese film; Schrader wrote the script. Here he writes and directs, and yields his best movie in many years. The images bear the DNA of Schrader's greatest influences, Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson and Carl Theodor Dreyer. They are Schrader's Holy Trinity, and the subjects of the essay that put him on the map as a film critic and theorist, Transcendental Style in Film (soon to be updated and rereleased in paperback). Spartan, ascetic, yet questing for something ineffable just off-screen, First Reformed bores down into the meaning of belief with an intensity that puts most "faith-based" films to shame.
The movie's tortured soul is Reverend Toller, played by a deeply invested Ethan Hawke. His face pinched and gaunt, his eyes gleaming with mounting despair, Toller is in charge of a small church in Upstate New York. His flock is sparse, his church a sort of small-scale tourist attraction dating back to the 18th century. It is derisively referred to as "the souvenir shop." Its 250th reconsecration ceremony is fast approaching, a big deal for the neighboring megachurch run by a glad-handing power player (Cedric the Entertainer, quite capable in a dramatic role).
Father Toller has issues, many of which he narrates in the form of a longhand diary (deep shades of Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest). He sits in a candlelit room, spilling his guts onto paper, steadily consuming whiskey. He's unwell, as we learn when we see him urinate blood (a visceral take on stigmata that Toller will surpass before the film is finished). His son has died in Iraq; his wife has left him. He is the contemporary version of God's lonely man.
But he's not alone in his suffering. Among his flock sits a young environmental activist (Philip Ettinger) and his pregnant wife (Amanda Seyfried). The husband has grave doubts about bringing a child into an increasingly contaminated world (a concern also articulated in Bergman's Wild Strawberries). Toller wonders if he can even help. But in voiceover, he describes the strenuous effort, the existential wrestling match, as "exhilarating).
So, in own quiet way, is First Reformed. It moves forward with a sense of dire inevitability that somehow borders on the serene. The diary narration forces us to partake in Toller's wounded interior life, while his actions march forward with grim determination. First Reformed is first and foremost a masterpiece of tone. It's a portrait of a wobbling man that does not waver.
First Reformed may feel daunting for moviegoers anesthetized by religious films that aim for ready-made uplift. This is a movie about faith tested, and people trying to reconcile hope with a world that can feel hopeless. It's a film to be seen in a dark theater with an audience hushed in reverence of the power of cinema.