Though I rarely acknowledge such matters, Paul Schrader was royally screwed last February when he failed to receive the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for his latest film. It was bad enough that Ethan Hawke, who won all sorts of awards from critics’ groups for his performance in the lead role, wasn’t even nominated, but Schrader was a screenwriter before he was a director, and First Reformed may be the most cogent realization of his distinct world view and approach to cinematic storytelling. In fact, the most brilliant detail in his screenplay is the provenance of the First Reformed Church that provides the setting for the story. Its main appeal in the 21st century is not its status as a sanctuary from material suffering or the lucid world view of its sympathetic pastor, Reverend Toller (Hawke), but its historical relevance as a main stop in upstate New York on the Underground Railroad during the days of slavery. It’s a tourist attraction, which pretty much sums up the way Schrader has come to rationalize his fundamentalist upbringing and the state of his own faith.
Toller arrived as his calling in the worst possible way, through suffering and guilt. A chaplain in the armed forces, he talked his son into enlisting to fight in the Iraq War, where he died. Toller’s self-flagellation drove away his wife and drove him to the bottle and then into the clergy, where his politics have turned around even if his belief has become more nuanced, more genuine in its usefulness as a tool to help others. So when a young, pregnant woman, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), comes to him to talk about the troubled mental state of her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), his impulse is to drop everything and do what he can. This is, Toller convinces himself, what he was made for, and, more relevant to his situation, a means of redemption. But Michael is almost too much for Toller; a dedicated environmentalist who is genuinely pained by the destruction of the planet. When he talks to Toller about his obsessions, they come across not as the heated rhetoric of a fanatic, but as the reasonable assertions of a true believer who reached his conclusions through deep thought and analysis. In a sense, Toller sees his own faith as wanting in contrast, and endeavors to engage Michael in his quest, which may involve terrorism. But that engagement is violently terminated, and Toller is left even more bereft of meaning in his vocation. He has no other choice but to honor Michael’s belief by grafting it onto his own.
This spiritual development does not occur in a vacuum. Toller’s church barely gets by on the tourist trade it attracts and his congregation is dwindling by the day. He receives monetary assistance from the pastor (Cedric the Entertainer) of a nearby mega-church as long as he toes the line and sucks up to the moneyed interests who support it. One of those interests is a local industrialist (Michael Gaston) whose company is a known polluter. Toller is forced to balance his loyalty to a withering congregation and a denomination that has not sufficiently made returns on his spiritual investment with his burgeoning despair at the fate of the planet, which has supplanted God in his being as the real object of mortal worship. Meanwhile, thanks to his drinking and poor living habits, his health is deterioriating at a rapid clip.
This is bleak stuff that threatens to veer off into melodramatic overkill, but it never does thanks to Schrader’s ironclad grip on material that he’s been working at since he burst on the scene with Taxi Driver. And Hawke has, in middle age, become one of the most reliably honest screen actors currently working. He channels Schrader’s disillusion into a performance that never takes the character or the material for granted. There are no ambiguities in First Reformed. It’s all as true as a movie can be.
Opens April 12 in Tokyo at Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551) and Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369-2831).
First Reformed home page in Japanese.
photo (c) Ferrocyanide Inc. 2017