Existential crisis

'First Reformed' looks at what ails churches, the human psyche

For over four decades, Paul Schrader has been the foremost cinematic chronicler of dysfunctional American masculinity. As the screenwriter of "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and "The Mosquito Coast" -- and the writer-director of "Hardcore," "American Gigolo," and "Affliction" -- Schrader has examined the despairing male illusions of power and control in a cold, indifferent universe, the blind alley of faith and the violent lashing out that accompanies realization. At 70, the writer-director has reached something like an apotheosis with his themes in "First Reformed," set in and around a small Dutch Reform church in upstate New York.

The Rev. Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) serves both as pastor and primary tour guide of his church, a tourist destination for its Dutch Colonial architecture and for being a stop on the Underground Railroad. The church's 250th anniversary celebration and reconsecration is coming up in two months, and largely under the auspices of nearby parent church Abundant Life, run by Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, a.k.a Cedric the Entertainer), the pastor. Although the lonely Toller has his own trouble -- what he calls "petty ailments" but most would call alarming symptoms -- he undertakes the concerns of a young expectant couple: Michael (Philip Ettinger) and Mary (Amanda Seyfried).

Michael has come to believe he shouldn't bring a child into a world doomed to environmental destruction and its attendant social chaos. Noting we're past "the tipping point," Michael also has begun gravitating to eco-terrorism, and Mary implores Toller for whatever counsel or comfort he can provide.

Schrader has surprises, even shocks, in store but cradles them in the emotional logic of characters in extremis. By encountering Michael and Mary's domestic crisis, Toller cracks open his own existential crisis and, in his own way, becomes radicalized by what he finds. He must take hard looks at the state of the world and the environment and his own faith, and what they mean in the context of what he's preaching, or peddling, to his flock. Toller must also square his association with a condescending megachurch (Toller's church gets dubbed "the souvenir shop" while Abundant Life gets described as "more of a company than a church"), one that's in bed with a polluting oil company.

"Life is experiencing the tension of hope and despair," Toller counsels. He also confesses to finding the tug-of-war between faith and faithlessness "exhilharating," but that engagement risks radicalizing him just at the moment he's expected meekly to double down on tradition and relinquish his control. Are we past pushing envelopes? Should we be stepping over lines? Taking this road to Calvary with Toller, the audience must examine its own thoughts and feelings about an ailing planet, the meaning of faith, mortality and apocalypse, and what constitutes sane or reasoned responses to all of the above.

As ever, lapsed Calvinist Schrader examines emotional repression as well as our American brand of social repression, and whenever Schrader is allowed to be uncompromising, the results indeed prove "exhilarating." Resonant performances help, but it's Schrader's on-point filmmaking -- a nouveau spin on the spiritual films, character studies and transcendental style of cinematic old masters like Bergman and Bresson -- that functions as what Toller calls "another form of prayer."

— Peter Canavese

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