★ ★ ★ ★
“First Reformed,” the meditative new film from writer-director Paul Schrader is a movie about hope, specifically, the search for it.
Ethan Hawke is a Father Toller, a former military chaplain at the under attended First Reformed Church. New to the church and still stinging from a troubled past he’s akin to another of Schrader’s creations, “Taxi Driver’s” Travis Bickle. He’s one of God’s lonely men, racked with despair, plagued by stomach problems brought on by drinking and thoughts of ecological failure. “I think we are supposed to look with the eyes of Jesus into everything,” he says. While overseeing the heritage church he creates his own “form of prayer,” a daily journal where he documents his crisis of faith.
His personal issues are amplified when Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a pregnant parishioner, seeks Toller’s council. Her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an extreme eco activist, is having second thoughts about bringing a baby into a world he is convinced is dying. His apocalyptic view of the world unsettles Toller, feeding his inner spiritual struggle.
Schrader is most famous for writing “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “The Last Temptation of Christ,” all deeply spiritual in their own ways. Here he tackles faith head on in his best film as a director since 2002’s “Auto Focus.”
Questions are asked; answers are left in the ether. It’s a portrait of a man in progress, trying to figure out his place in the world, if there will be a world to be part of. Hawke is subdued, handing in an internal performance that creates tension as Toller waits for God to tell him what to do. It is powerful work complimented by strong performances from Seyfried and Cedric the Entertainer as the condescending mega-church preacher Pastor Jeffers.
Schrader makes some bold choices here—the film is unrelentingly sombre—but most notably with the sudden and ambiguous ending. Toller looks to be finally taking control of his life, although the form of his redemption is left open to interpretation. This is Schrader’s ode to Andrei Tarkovsky and Ingmar Bergman, contemplative filmmakers of the past who essayed questions of theology and spiritual growth without judging their characters. Uncluttered and edited with laser like attention to detail, “First Reformed” is a thought-provoking movie that bears repeated viewing.