Courtesy of A24
Emotional levity is something Paul Schrader specializes in capturing on screen (if you’ve seen “Raging Bull” then you know what I’m talking about). But a recent view of the directors filmography seems to indicate the once lauded auteur might have lost his philosophical touch. Has anyone seen “Dog Eat Dog” starring Nicolas Cage?
I wouldn't rank “First Reformed” among the tier of the directors best work, but it makes the case that he's eager and ready to make amends for some questionable creative decisions in the past. If this is part of his homecoming, I'm happy to be part of the train. And he's got Ethan Hawke on board as a conductor, in a role guaranteed to be chugging along all the way to award season.
The argument stands: Hawke is easily one of the best actors working today. Because of that, he's able to convey real and believable emotions as the troubled Reverend Toller, an ex-military Chaplin at terms with his duties - and life - as he's still reeling from the loss of his son to the war in Iraq. While this pushes him to question his own moral beliefs, that doesn't stop the pastor from counseling a young parishioner (Amanda Seyfried – terrific) who is seeking guidance and assistance for her radical environmentalist husband. She fears he's a danger to himself, and when the two sit down for a face to face conversation, Toller examines his apocalyptic mindset and slowly reconfigures his own path.
When he's not participating in those activities, Toller often spends his days in solitude, attending to the leaky toilets in the bathrooms, and curating local school groups through, what some quip is “A souvenir shop.” On top of his ailing health, he also contends with diminishing numbers and empty pews in his own congregation. Mainly in part to the conglomerate - and franchised - church next door (headed by Cedric The Entertainer in a rare dramatic turn). He even turns down advances from the choir director (an empathic Victoria Hill), who seems interested in his well being, but wants nothing to do with her, fearing companionship will bring out the worse in him. This all happens on the cusp of the church's 250 year old celebration, which not only sees Hawke's Toller reach a breaking point in his cycle, but the audience too.
Much like Schrader's films in the past, don't expect happy endings to blossom prior to the end credits. Especially as “First Reformed” tackles everything from abortions, suicide, and adultery. It's not supposed to be inviting, but watching Hawke travel through his discoveries – which he keeps throughly detailed in a handy notebook to help cope – is transcending. Still, the movies undertones come across more obvious than subtle, proving not enough style exists to make you forget about the plots dramatic manipulation or elongated duration. Even when I was caught admiring certain aesthetics, and religious struggles – I was feeling every second of the films 113 minute runtime. It's like Schrader has so many ideas to put in motion, but never justly executes all of them.
Then again, few people can wear a clerical uniform to great distinction the way Hawke does here, conveying his eventual downfall into ethical submission with utter tranquility. And because it's a controversial topic, you won't be surprised to learn this all builds to a tantalizing climax, likely to alienate some viewers, and shock others. Either way, it doesn't do any favors for those looking for a spiritually guided movie, and I feel for those that mistakenly walk in thinking it is. This is 100% Schrader, which, a few months ago would've been silly to ask for. And while “First Reformed” doesn't leap bounds with it's bleak allegories of faith and religion, Hawke makes sure the viewers aren't the only ones who pay the price.