A Paul Schrader film never has been, and never will be, an easy watch or an easy option. Whether it’s his more recent excesses of Dog Eat Dog, or the almost unfathomable philosophical conundrums of Mishima:A Life In Four Chapters (1985), the one thing you don’t go along for is a smooth ride.
And you certainly don’t get one with his latest, First Reformed, the film that has lifted the writer of Taxi Driver out of the doldrums and right back into the spotlight. A film that draws on his religious background, but which is infused with a multitude of weighty themes – fatherhood, the morality of war, man’s stewardship of our planet, religious extremism of any persuasion. And it’s all summed up in one deceptively simple question. “Will God forgive us?”
Ethan Hawke, with the face of a man weighed down by his past, plays Toller, the priest who presides over the timber built First Reformed church of the title. In truth, it’s more of an upstate New York tourist attraction than a real church, with a congregation of barely more than half a dozen. Mary (Amanda Seyfried), asks him to counsel her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), who is depressed and obsessed with the destruction of the environment. When tragedy strikes, Toller discovers that Michael had planned to blow up a local site in protest. As a suicide bomber. And as the priest grapples with the combination of worldly concerns and his own tormented past, it’s as if Michael’s spirit takes him over.
All of which makes for a typically complex offering from Schrader, who both writes and directs. He weaves his themes together with huge skill and depth, helped by what much be a career best performance from Hawke, who thrives on the high drama and tortured nature of his character. Towards the end, he becomes almost Christ like yet he has more than enough human failings. His own personal counselling sessions involve writing his daily journal fuelled by copious quantities of whisky.
It isn’t always easy to understand everything that Schrader is saying – the end, in particular, will leave you wondering and perhaps even scratching your head. Rather like Toller himself, it’s incapable of giving peace. But Schrader’s typically forceful manner means you pay attention and never miss a beat. An almost total lack of music means the script can be truly savoured and there are several scenes which focus purely on two people arguing through moral and environmental questions. Demanding, complicated and distressing in equal measure, First Reformed signals loud and clear that Schrader is back. Big time.
First Reformed is screened at Sundance London on Friday, 1 June and Saturday, 2 June.
Freda Cooper | [rating=4]
Drama | 15 | UK, 13 July (2018) | Picturehouse Entertainment | Dir. Paul Schrader| Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles, Victoria Hill, Michael Gaston, Philip Ettinger.