Photos | A24 / Sony Pictures Classic
From left: In “First Reformed,” Ethan Hawke is a minister of a small congregation in upstate New York who grapples with mounting despair brought on by tragedy, worldly concerns and a tormented past. Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly portray Laurel and Hardy in “Stan & Ollie.”
Paul Schrader is a legendary screenwriter who is also legendary for never getting an Oscar nomination. His recent film “First Reformed,” however, has broken that streak, earning him a single nod for Best Screenplay, which is still a bit of a snub since he also directed itC but was not mentioned in that category.
But the real crime is against the film’s star, Ethan Hawke, who gives a restrained but powerful performance as the broken minister of the titular church, and who certainly deserved to be nominated for Best Actor.
This austere but watchable film distills themes Schrader has addressed throughout his career. Hawke’s character might be a quiet minister, but his personal transformation has echoes of one of Schrader’s most famous characters, Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic, “Taxi Driver.” Both men start from a position of personal anguish that metastasizes to what they take up as a higher calling.
Schrader dealt controversially with religion in another Scorsese project, “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and is himself from a strict religious, Calvinist background. In “First Reformed,” the personal becomes political and religious. Hawke’s Reverend Ernst Toller is still reeling from the anguish of the death of his son, who he encouraged to take up the family tradition of military service; six months into a tour of Iraq, the son was killed, leading Toller to leave the military and his wife to leave their marriage.
Now Toller serves the miniscule parish in a historical church and, as he leadenly prepares for the church’s 250-year reconsecration celebration, he drinks heavily every night and flagellates himself in the pages of his journal, amidst a sparsely furnished parsonage. He also urinates blood.
A pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried) requests that he call on her morose husband, a militant environmentalist in the throes of existential despair over bringing a child into a world that he is convinced is ruined. The men’s conversation energizes Toller, but his exhilaration over their debate is short lived, and the environmentalist’s problems escalate.
As you can probably tell, this is a fairly dire film, but Hawke is absolutely riveting, and it’s worth the discomfort. Even though it is about a minister and a church, the religious subject matter is somehow universal, and Schrader’s cinematic style is masterful. A serious lifelong student and scholar of cinema and the author of a book called Transcendental Style in Film (1972,) Schrader has built this film with plenty of visual and thematic references for the aficionado to unpack.
The most startling and memorable moment for me came late in the film. When we have steeped in the bleakness of Toller’s worldview and the plot is ratcheting up, a single break from realism occurs between two characters. A brief magical sequence transcends the action of the film — unexpected, moving and singular. Schrader credits the influence of transcendental filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky with this scene, claiming in an interview that he literally asked himself, “What would Tarkovsky do?”
“First Reformed” is a visually and emotionally rigorous experience, but it is also grounded and centered by star Ethan Hawke in a performance that is quietly spectacular in every scene. He is entirely naturalistic, yet becomes a masterful archetype that is both religious and secular, hopeful and bleak. From his face to his clothing, Hawke is unlike you have ever seen him before, and absolutely gives the performance of his career.
“First Reformed” is currently available to rent.