The searching loss-of-faith drama First Reformed is the happy result of Paul Schrader’s entering the what-the-hell-let’s-go-for-it stage of his long and bravely self-lacerating career. Having somehow survived The Canyons (if you’re going to martyr yourself, okay — but for Lindsay Lohan?), he now takes on the most yawning of all canyons. His protagonist is Toller (Ethan Hawke), an emotionally bereft, alcoholic pastor who preaches at First Reformed, a historic upstate New York church (established in 1767, it was once a stop on the Underground Railroad) more popular as a tourist destination than a place of worship. (Most congregants attend the nearby megachurch that owns First Reformed.) Toller preaches to his tiny flock while struggling to keep his spirit aloft. He came to this assignment relatively late, following a family tragedy for which he feels responsible, and he cannot even pray without questioning the medium. “The desire for prayer is itself a prayer,” he writes in a longhand journal — an experiment, he says, in examining himself with “no mercy.”
Schrader’s set-up owes much to Robert Bresson’s The Diary of a Country Priest and Ingmar Bergman’s severely depressing Winter Light (1963), the fulcrum of which is a plea from the pregnant wife of a despairing congregant. But there are crucial differences. Bergman’s tortured husband (Max von Sydow) is apolitical, thrown into a spiritual chasm by Chinese nukes, while Schrader’s is a radical environmental activist (Philip Ettinger) who can’t bring a child into a doomed world. This is a Diary of a Country Priest/Winter Light for the age of Trump and the Iraq war and 350.org and Earth First! Unable to save a man whose cause he comes to see as righteous, Toller’s anguish finally focuses on the Church itself, which has forsaken the activism of those abolitionists. As in all of Schrader’s work, the hunger for transcendence manifests itself in violence against both others and the self — though by the end, there’s not much of a separation.
First Reformed is rigorously austere (as befits the author of Transcendental Style in Film), but every frame suggests a longing for a world elsewhere. It could be argued that it gets away from Schrader, who probably had to wrest the script from his own hands to begin shooting. The climax borders on the ludicrous, the finale is … a stretch. Nevertheless, my admiration is complete. Why make a film like this if you won’t flirt with disaster?
The villain — a polluter who’s the church’s principal benefactor — is too broadly drawn, and there’s only so much Amanda Seyfried can do with the part of the wife, here an idealized love object. But Victoria Hill does well by the old Ingrid Thulin role and Hawke is as committed as I’ve seen him: He drives himself to a feverish pitch that makes you pray — whatever your degree of faith — for the character’s continued existence. The question Schrader poses remains unanswered: “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?”
*A version of this article appears in the May 14, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!