Some 40 years after creating Travis Bickle and “Taxi Driver,” Paul Schrader gives us Ernst Toller and “First Reformed.”
Travis was a tightly wound loner caught in the grips of despair. He kept a diary as he grew ever more isolated from the world around him, ever more certain he needed to make a grand and violent gesture.
Ernst Toller is a generation older than was Bickle, but he, too, is keeping a daily record of his increasingly dark thoughts, and he, too, comes to the conclusion he must do something bold and horrible and brutal — something that will end his own life and many others.
Schrader authored the screenplay to Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic “Taxi Driver,” and he is the writer-director of “First Reformed.” Over the last four decades, Schrader has specialized in writing and/or directing numerous films about men on dark journeys, from Robert De Niro’s paranoid brute boxer in “Raging Bull” to Nick Nolte’s troubled cop in “Affliction” to Willem Dafoe’s drug dealer in “Light Sleeper” to Nicolas Cage’s haunted paramedic in “Bringing Out the Dead.”
With “First Reformed,” Schrader delivers his most impactful work in years, with Ethan Hawke’s haunting and brilliant work as Ernst Toller joining the ranks of great lead performances in Schrader films. This is an inescapably memorable and at times almost unbearably sorrowful piece of work.
The opening shot of “First Reformed” — a slow camera track towards a small, white, colonial church — could be the introduction to a horror film, and at times that would be an accurate description of the events depicted.
But there are no 18th century ghosts or supernatural beings looming in this story. The demons come from within. The horrifying acts are committed by human beings for whom we have genuine sympathy.
Hawke’s Rev. Toller is the pastor of the tiny First Reformed Church, which has a congregation of about a dozen, judging by the attendance at Sunday services. About to celebrate its 250th anniversary, the church exists mainly as a minor tourist attraction, with Toller showing visitors the trapdoor that led to a shelter for the Underground Railroad and encouraging folks to pick up a hat or a T-shirt or a trinket in the gift shop.
To say Toller is a man in crisis would be a massive understatement. He is seriously ill (blood shows up every time he urinates). He’s good for about a fifth of booze every night, as he furiously scribbles in his diary. He is haunted by the death of his only son, who was killed in action. (Toller’s wife left him because it was Toller who encouraged the boy to sign up for duty).
Amanda Seyfried gives a lovely, low-key performance as the pregnant Mary, an earnest and deeply faithful First Reformed parishioner. (Not much of a leap to speculate “Mary” is probably not an accidental name for this character.)
Mary asks Toller to help her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), a radical environmentalist who believes the world is doomed and they should not bring a child into this world. (Toller’s counseling session with Michael, with Toller carefully choosing his words and Michael passionately explaining his conspiracy theories and his anguish at what humankind has done to the planet, is a master class featuring two fine actors and expertly crafted dialogue.) The environmental angle in “First Reformed” takes a perhaps too-convenient turn when Michael’s story arc overlaps with Toller’s run-ins with local industrialist Edward Balq (Michael Gaston). In addition to being one of the worst polluters in the nation, Balq happens to be the biggest and most influential donor to the Abundant Life Ministries, a mega-church that owns First Reformed.
Cedric Kyles, better known as Cedric the Entertainer, is pitch-perfect in a straightforward dramatic role as the charismatic, deep-pocketed leader of Abundant Life, who has a soft spot for Toller but doesn’t hesitate to call him out for his drinking and his erratic behavior, and his failure to truly do God’s work.
The final act of “First Reformed” includes an almost hallucinogenic spiritual trip — and a sequence of white-knuckled intensity that includes an image almost daring you to close your eyes or look away. Schrader pulls no spiritual punches.
A24 presents a film written and directed by Paul Schrader. Rated R (for some disturbing violent images). Running time: 113 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.