Film Review: “First Reformed” — A Vision of Despair, Restrained

This time around, as both a writer and director, Paul Schrader has a found a story, and the artistic restraint, to convey his elevated vision.

First Reformed, directed by Paul Schrader, screening as part of Independent Film Festival Boston at the Somerville Theatre, Davis Square, Somerville, April 29 at 6 p.m.

A scene with Ethan Hawke from “First Reformed.”

By Tim Jackson

Paul Schrader’s new film, First Reformed, begins with an ominously slow camera shot that moves toward a rustic church set in the woods. The First Reformed is led by the Reverend Ernst Toller, who is played by a effectively doleful Ethan Hawke. Toller is a middle-aged alcoholic with a sadly diminished flock, lifeless sermons, and a troubled past, including the death of a son and a failed marriage. Schrader’s direction is nothing if not patient; he favors long takes and formal compositions. His model is evidently Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. Like the priest in that film, Reverend Toller is in poor health, suffers from a crisis of faith, and advances the story through his narration in a journal. As might be expected from the writer of Taxi Driver, Affliction, and The Last Temptation of Christ, First Reformed ventures beyond Bresson’s austere tale, eventually descending into hellishly surreal territory.

The weary priest leads unenthusiastic tours of the historic building that was once a stop, he explains, on the Underground Railroad. The church is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary in a ceremony financed by the nearby super-church, Abundant Life, which is under the stewardship of Joel Jeffers, played wonderfully by Cedric Kyles (better known as Cedric the Entertainer). That church is supported in part by an industrialist named Ed Balq. The collusion of industry and religion is set against Toller’s situation; he leads a simple life in a home devoid of furniture, warmth or companionship. The Journals of Thomas Merton sits on his bedside, and Toller quotes from the volume: “Even when he tries to do good to others his efforts are hopeless, since he does not know how to do good to himself.” Given Schrader’s grim tale, the passage preceding that one is revealing: “A man who is not at peace with himself necessarily projects his interior fighting into the society of those he lives with, and spreads a contagion of conflict all around him.”

One day a young congregant, Mary Mensana, played by Amanda Seyfried, comes to Toller for advice. She is pregnant and her husband, she confesses, is pushing “to kill our child.” When Toller visits the home to counsel the husband he discovers that the husband’s discontent is rooted in depression at the progression of Climate Change: the future will a world into which he feels no child should be raised. The issue is real for Schrader, who last year said in an interview with Variety: “There may have been a reason to be hopeful 10 or 15 years ago, but we’ve played our hand now. We’ve indicated what our priorities are. Our priorities are our immediate comforts and not the existence of future generations. I don’t think intelligent life will end with humans. There may even be moral life after humans. But we have more or less soiled our nest. The universe will be well rid of us.”

Further revelations and tragedy lead Toller to question his ability to make any kind of difference in a civilization that he too begins to see as hopelessly corrupt. His doubts about devotion and the cause of environmentalism grow into twin sources of despair. As his illness worsens, his faith crumbles. Toller is driven to act.

Hawke agilely embodies the troubled face of contemporary despair; Seyfried conveys the face of innocence and hope. Schrader has written on what he terms the genre of ‘transcendental film’ – psychologically penetrating stories told by way of austere camerawork, unself-conscious acting, and clean and simple editing. His previous two films, The Canyons (with Lindsay Lohan and porn star James Deen) and Dog Eat Dog (a rambling dark comedy with Nicholas Cage), were far from attaining that kind of elemental elegance. First Reformed has its gonzo moments, but this time around, as both a writer and director, Schrader has a found a story, and the artistic restraint, to convey his elevated vision.

Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.

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