Paul Schrader has written “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull.” He’s written and directed “American Gigolo” and “Affliction.” His films tend to grab you around the throat and punch you in the stomach. The same goes with “First Reformed,” which he also wrote and directed. But this one does it in a quieter, calmer, more mannered way.
The issues he tackles here include loss of faith — by a minister, no less — problems with the environment, dealing with suicide ... the list goes on. Set in a small community in upstate New York, the film looks in on Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), a man who appears to carry the world on his shoulders as he tells stories about his little church to visiting tourists, does all sorts of maintenance repairs in his free time, and preaches to a shrinking scattering of parishioners.
That’s all happening when he’s not coughing or getting loads of medical tests, and when he’s not grieving over the loss of his son in the Iraq War (but he’s always grieving about that, and about the fact that it led to a divorce from his wife). As a way to get a grip on things, Toller decides to keep a journal for a year, then destroy it, and Schrader uses that device perfectly, with his camera trained on paper and pen as Toller is writing, complemented by Hawke’s voice sharing his inner thoughts.
This is all interrupted when duty calls, when a local woman, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), tells Toller that she’s worried about her husband Michael (Phillip Ettinger), who is just out of jail, is a member of an environmental activists group, and is unhappy about Mary’s pregnancy because he doesn’t feel it would be right to bring a child into this world.
Displaying a taste of the mood that’s to come, Schrader puts the two men together for a heartfelt discussion that eventually reveals just how shattered each of them is. The script suddenly pulls away from that story, switching to one about First Reformed — the name of Toller’s church. The place is in constant disrepair and is much in need of funds, but it also has a 250th anniversary coming up. The nearby wealthy church, Abundant Life, under the direction of Reverend Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer), is in charge of putting on that celebration.
You’d think that Toller would be excited about this, and he might be, but a desperate call from Mary puts his mind elsewhere. Tragedy ensues, Toller’s cough gets worse, and — why not complicate things even more — Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), a local rich guy who’s in the energy business, has made three things clear: He doesn’t give a hoot about the environment, he intends to build up his own image by funding the First Reformed celebration, and he doesn’t like Toller.
Negative energy oozes out of the woodwork in this film, which moves at a leisurely pace but somehow feels as if it’s zipping by. The presence of Balq, along with a growing concern for the environment, and the realization that First Reformed is nothing more than, according to Reverend Jeffers, a “tourist church,” leads Toller to take a stand “against authorities and powers of this dark world.”
Not only does the film feature outstanding performances from Hawke, who covers a lot of emotional terrain, and from Cedric, who joins the ranks of comedians who can pull off serious, straight-ahead pieces of acting, it also shows that Schrader’s creative powers are in fine form. A great deal of tension, that builds relentlessly, is presented toward the end. And the final moments should make for some lively discussion among filmgoers.
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Written and directed by Paul Schrader
With Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer, Michael Gaston, Phillip Ettinger