Hawke is at his best; humanity, not so much. An intensely satisfying drama.
Director: Paul Schrader (Affliction)
Screenplay: Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull)
Cast: Ethan Hawke (Maudie), Amanda Seyfried (Les Miserables)
Runtime: 1 hr 53 min
by John DeSando
Toller (Ethan Hawke) presides over a sparse congregation in a Dutch Reformed church, whose whiteness suggests an austerity to make even its prelate go mad. From his troubled marriage with a son encouraged to enter the Iraq war and lose his life, to Toller’s hypersensitivity about the degradation of the environment, he’s on the slow path to insanity.
Ethan Hawke plays the conflicted priest as only a seasoned actor could to such a complex character in First Reformed. It’s not easy to see where gifted writer/director Paul Schrader, born in a Calvinist environment, is going with this troubled character, even with the love of comely parishioner Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and the blandishments of Esther (Victoria Hill), not to mention his almost crazed reaction to environmental catastrophes enfolding in his upstate New York, 18th century-rooted, industrial world.
As Toller descends into a modern thinking man’s dark soul, Schrader keeps his camera knowingly static to let the character come out and the environment starkly accentuate the loneliness of a modern savior.
At no point are we uncertain of his toxic solitude, exacerbated by his drinking and volatility. Also, his daily diary provides Schrader the opportunity for voice-over narration to expose the many layers of Toller’s growing intolerance that aims to violence rather than charity.
His way to salvation may be a road to love even though he avoids it. The audience need not be priests to go through this dark night of the soul. A crisis of faith and awareness of global warming can hit any man with contemporary force. Schrader’s poetic and intellectual link to Bresson, Ozu, Dreyer, and any other influential auteur is no more apparent than in First Reformed, where old pieties clash with modern turmoil.
So re-visit Travis Bickle, put on your crown of thorns, play the rousing hymn Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, and ask someone to join you in a memorable character study with ramifications for those of us not of the cloth but concerned about our personal faith and our deteriorating world.
John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.rr.com