Directed by Paul Schrader
Starring Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles
Playing at Angelika Film Center, AMC Loews Lincoln Square
“First Reformed” plays like the movie Paul Schrader has been waiting his whole life to make, which is to say the autobiographical leanings that have underpinned a lot of his work spill out into the open from the first frame to the last.
Schrader, best known for scripting “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” had a strict Calvinist upbringing and his filmography as a writer and director (“Affliction,” “Hardcore”) is perhaps best understood as that of a man exploring the question of how faith and religious conviction can coexist with the darkest human impulses.
In Schrader’s austere new film, shot in the boxy 4:3 format that constraints and focuses the action, Ethan Hawke plays Rev. Ernst Toller, an upstate New York pastor at a Dutch Reformed church. He is overwhelmed by guilt tied to a personal tragedy, preaching to a dwindling congregation and struggling to find a way to continue leading it given his own profound doubts.
The story finds Toller further shoved down that path as he grows closer to a congregant named Mary (Amanda Seyfried), after she asks him to help reach her radical environmentalist husband before he pursues a dangerous, violent action.
With a camera that largely remains still and uncompromising, and a framing device in the form of Toller’s diary that serves as narration, Schrader pointedly focuses his attention on the pastor’s fraying mental and emotional state. But this breakdown is captured with quiet restraint, in scenes defined by darkness and isolation, emphasizing the anguish of a man becoming aware of an essential hypocrisy and being driven to extremes to correct it.
The movie could be seen as Schrader’s tribute to the minimalist French master Robert Bresson, whose work was defined by his Catholicism. “First Reformed” demands a lot out of its viewer and defies easy comprehension. There is a touch of the surreal to Toller’s journey and a healthy amount of the narrative must be inferred in the silences, the pauses in conversations and the thoughts and feelings left unsaid.
Hawke offers one of his best performances, a masterful blending of outward stoicism and strong and challenging emotions.
He provides the guidepost that gets you to where Schrader wants you to go, as his character and the filmmaker who created him search for meaning and purpose, a greater understanding, where there might be none.