By any stretch of the imagination, Paul Schrader’s career has been unusual. The most notable film he wrote—and an extraordinary one at that—appeared in theaters 42 years ago, directed by a young Martin Scorsese (“Taxi Driver”). What has followed “Taxi Driver,” as we would expect from most artists, is littered with a healthy dosage of early artistic successes (“Raging Bull,” “Blue Collar”) and late unmitigated failures (“The Canyons,” “Dog Eat Dog”). Schrader may have summed it up best when he noted, “It doesn’t really matter what I do, the first line of my obituary will be ‘the writer of “Taxi Driver.”’”
It’s precisely this context that makes the vibrant energy of Schrader’s new film, “First Reformed,” deeply intriguing to unpack. Not only is the film an extraordinary piece of art in of itself, it implicitly offers a new lens with which to explore the artistic strengths and weaknesses of Shrader—that is, the evolution of a mind with the capability to produce great art.
Here, Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Toller, the chaplain to a small congregation in upstate New York. On the practical side, his church is a subsidiary of a larger religious organization marked by obligatory corporate sponsors. Its organ is broken; the church has been partially converted into a gift shop.
Amidst the dwindling churchgoers sits Mary (a wonderful Amanda Seyfried) and her vaguely religious husband Michael (an equally compelling Philip Ettinger). In a moment of slow burning crisis, they ask Reverend Toller to council Michael through his depression, driven by his concern for the natural world: What child, Michael asks, should be brought in to a world that is being destroyed by human hands?
What follows is a carefully wrought interrogation of the relationship between the church and the natural environment. “First Reformed” operates with the assumption that there is a theological rationale for the preservation of the earth—humans must act as the benevolent stewards of, as Toller terms it, God’s creation. Yet the most intriguing moments of “First Reformed” are when it examines what a human dedication to this premise looks like; what precisely happens when the individual becomes consumed by their conceptualization of the world—even if that understanding of reality is based in the agreeable foundation of environmentalism and faith.
Thus begins Toller’s descent into madness. Hawke works well in the role, suppressing Toller’s wide-eyed insanity until the film’s slightly overdone finale. This is not to say that the film’s conclusion or its exploration of madness does not work; rather, at risk of undermining some of the surprise in each of the film’s three acts, its conclusion is simultaneously intellectually engaging and narratively disconcerting.
Within this framework, perhaps one’s appreciation for the film is tethered to one’s artistic priorities: At certain points, “First Reformed” does not quite work as a story, but works very well as a series of interconnected and evocative ideas. At the risk of seeming dismissive of the needs of narrative, the film is layered with enough intellectual thought that many of its narrative flaws are simply easy points of criticism without holding much weight on the overall artistic product.
Much of that intellectual thought is borne out in its visual craftsmanship. The camera work is impeccable, creating a collage of interlaced images that links seemingly disparate ideas. Schrader is always careful to frame conversations around the isolated image of characters’ faces, lending a certain vibrant mobility to the movement of discussions.
Even something as simple as Toller’s home is given delicate representational thought. As the film unfolds, the camera slowly reveals the sheer expanse of Toller’s physical space, projecting the progressive emptiness that manifests once his perspective expands to the incomprehensible domain of cosmic proportions.
It is on the small, fundamental building blocks of filmmaking that “First Reformed” thrives. It is through their coherent assemblage that the film becomes an eloquent articulation of conceptual challenges. In a small bit role as a choir director, Victoria Hill deftly depicts the psychological trauma of unrequited love and the effects of Toller’s self-absorbed cosmic reflections. Cedric Antonio Kyles (Cedric the Entertainer), another supporting character, compellingly articulates the nuanced relationship between the church, faith, and wealth.
Nevertheless, this cannot obscure the fact that the ending of “First Reformed” is an outpouring of creative and narrative foolishness—albeit tension-addled narrative foolishness. Nor should that ending obfuscate the rich artistry of what preceded it. Perhaps what we have received here, then, is the articulation of a brilliant creative mind; perhaps it is too much to expect the consistency of brilliance (over the course of a movie, let alone a career) from our best and brightest. Schrader, with “First Reformed,” has firmly entrenched himself in that category.
—Staff writer Aziz B. Yakub can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.