7By Eleanor Ringel Cater
About halfway through my scribbled notes for Paul Schrader’s stunning new film, “First Reformed,” I came across the line, “’Taxi Driver’ Meets ‘An Inconvenient Truth.’”
Reasonably clever in a “quippy’ way — and dead wrong.
Yes, environmental concerns are raised in “First Reformed” and yes, Schrader wrote “Taxi Driver” which also examined the psyche of someone so isolated and in pain as to be almost beyond our understanding.
But this picture reverts to the filmmaker’s deep Calvinist roots and to questions of religion and faith rarely examined in today’s cinema.
First Reformed is also the name of a historic church in snowy upstate New York. The pastor, Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), has mixed feelings about the upcoming celebration of its 250th anniversary.
On the one hand, it will help the church, which, these days, functions more as a tourist attraction than a house of worship (Its nickname is “The Gift Shop”). On the other, the event is mostly, as he says, “about rich guys congratulating each other.” The Governor is expected, as are a number of Big Business types.
But there’s more on the Reverend’s mind than the Reconsecration ceremony. As we quickly learn from the journal he’s begun keeping, Toller is in a state of spiritual crisis. Tortured by self-doubt and a tragic past, he constantly questions his relationship with God as well as his ability to minister — even to a congregation as meager as First Reformed’s (The real action is down the road at the buoyant and well-heeled megachurch, Abundant Life).
However, as Toller is about to learn, God works in mysterious ways. A pregnant young woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) needs his help. Her husband (Philip Ettinger) is a passionate environmentalist — the kind who gets arrested for very public protests and keeps photos of ecological martyrs on the wall of his study. Convinced that bringing a child into this polluted world is wrong, he wants her to get an abortion.
She wants – needs – Toller to talk some sense into him.
But abortion rights and wrongs aren’t what the movie is about. The couple’s troubles are merely a jumping-off point for Schrader’s fearless, unrelenting study of a soul in torment. As Toller wonders in his journal, “Did Jesus worry about being liked?”
Schrader is more comfortable asking questions than providing answers. The movie’s final scene can be taken in many different ways. For some, it could be God’s eternal loving embrace; for others, it might suggest senseless martyrdom. Either way, it’s not what you encounter at the end of most summer movies.
Hawke is extraordinary. Everything about him suggests a haunted remove from humanity (not the best way to go about being a minister). When he insists he’s perfectly happy, his eyes are deader than dead. And Schrader doesn’t let him off the hook. He may be a lost soul, but that doesn’t excuse the cruelty he directs at a well-meaning choir director with whom he has had a brief affair.
Seyfried, who so often shines in Golden Girl roles (“Mamma Mia,” “Les Miserables”), does an expert job of tamping down her Head Cheerleader charisma while still subtly wielding its power. And Cedric Kyles, better known as Cedric the Entertainer, is a revelation as Abundant Life’s leader – a jovial man of God who can be accused of all sorts of “commercial” accommodations, but truly understands the complex tug between genuine spirituality and the astute razzmatazz that keeps a large church thriving.
“First Reformed” is that rare movie that questions faith from the standpoint of faith. Schrader is a believer, one brave enough to question why – or even what – he believes. His film can be slow and its stoic reserve, while expertly mirroring Toller’s predicament, can be a challenge.
But boy, when it’s over, you’ll know you’ve been to a movie with more on its mind than a sequel.