Paul Schrader loves self-destruction. The famed writer-director often creates characters that, consciously or subconsciously, put themselves through the wringer, most famously in his work with Martin Scorsese on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ. Now, after 30 years toiling away in relative obscurity, he's reiterated his commitment to internal combustion with First Reformed, a challenging film that feels both timely and everlasting.
Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) runs a small church in upstate New York, essentially a historical tourist trap subsidized by the mega church down the street. He's haunted by cajoling his now-deceased son to enlist in the military, and by the cancer that is quietly ravaging his body. In between lengthy sessions of drinking and writing in a new journal—its words serve as insightful voice-over—a young pregnant churchgoer (Amanda Seyfried) asks Toller to speak to her husband (Philip Ettinger). He's an environmentalist who wants his wife to get an abortion rather than bring a child into what he considers a dying world, and his interactions with Toller send the reverend down an even-bleaker road.
First Reformed stands out in a few ways. It's not an indictment of specific religious practices so much as the story of a crisis of faith. Though Schrader does call out religious leaders, local and prominent, for ignoring big-picture issues like the slow destruction of the planet via global warming, it's often through our unreliable, oft-drunk narrator. Toller's concerns about his place in the world, and its salvation, aren't fueled by genuine sentiment so much as uncertainty and fear over what he's seen, and continues to see.
Which makes casting Hawke utter brilliance. He's always looked young and innocent, even now at 47; it made him the perfect foil for Denzel Washington in Training Day and an exquisite choice as this conflicted man of faith. Through his acting and through years on screen, we're conditioned to give Hawke's characters the benefit of the doubt, even when he's losing his mind before our eyes. His comforting presence, and his ability to keep the madness largely contained but occasionally bursting at the seams, gives Toller a depth and even a humor that few other actors could touch. He is this movie, through and through, and it's easily his best performance.
Schrader also smartly positions sympathetic characters all around Toller, accentuating just how far he falls. Cedric the Entertainer's Pastor Jeffers, the head of the aforementioned mega church, would likely be portrayed as a leech in other films, sucking money from wide-eyed churchgoers to line his pockets. But not here; Jeffers may not be perfect, but we're not privy to any distinct deficiencies of character. In fact, his points about Toller's future are well founded; if he's going through a crisis, get out there and preach. Build houses; get your hands dirty; be among the people.
Unfortunately, Jeffers doesn't realize how deep Toller's concerns have become. Or, more importantly, how far Toller has deteriorated. Even the audience doesn't fully realize how far he's willing to go, though we're given hints from very early on. There's a point in First Reformed where it goes full Taxi Driver, which is jarring; you don't expect to see Hawke channeling De Niro. You definitely don't expect the reverend to lust after Seyfried's pregnant Mary; even revelations that he does feel odd and dream-like, brought about by insanity and alcohol.
But I suspect that's the point. Schrader isn't looking to replicate the beats of a movie he wrote 42 years ago; he's just going down a similar path with a very dissimilar character. And I strongly suspect it's meant to inspire the shock and confusion that feeds into a very jarring and uncertain ending. There are no easy answers in First Reformed; one man can't save the world, through violent acts or passionate preaching. At best, he can save himself, and it's unclear whether Toller is even capable of that. Schrader focuses numerous shots on nearby liquids; blood going into a tube, piss in a cup, liquor (and drain cleaner) being poured into a tumbler. Are they references to the blood of Christ, or just the fluids that fuel Toller's body as he struggles for clarity? I honestly couldn't tell you. The Lord and Paul Schrader both work in mysterious ways; in this instance, that's a blessing.