I watched films Paul Schrader either wrote or directed or both before I knew who Paul Schrader was and definitely before i was old enough to be seeing those films. Again I credit The Z Channel for both the shaping of my film education and warping of my soul. He wrote Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980) both directed by Martin Scorsese. He also wrote the Hitchcockian drama Obsession (1976) directed by Brian DePalma. I remember seeing Hardcore (1979) which he co-wrote and directed starring George C. Scott as a father looking for his missing daughter only to find that she’s in Los Angeles and doing porn films. he goes undercover as a porn producer to find her. He also adapted the novel Last Temptation of Christ (1988) again for Scorsese. Amazingly, he has never been nominated for an Oscar but his films are haunting and powerful even the ones that don’t completely work.
His themes are often spiritual ones, something he shares with Scorsese. His characters are lost souls struggling for meaning, faith and reaching for redemption. First Reformed is such a story. Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) is an ex military chaplain who is broken by the death of his son and break up of his marriage. He has been given the small tourist parish of First Reformed, by Pastor Jeffers (Cedrick Kyles aka Cedrick the Entertainer) the head of a nearby megachurch.
Toller has taken to the bottle and decides to start a journal (resemblances of Taxi Driver). His following is small but he is approached by Mary (Amanda Seyfried) a young pregnant woman, to speak with her husband Michael (Phillip Ettinger) who she says is depressed and wants her to abort the baby. Michael is an environmentalist who has a bleak vision of the future and doesn’t feel its right to bring a child into the world. Roller is challenged by his meeting with Michael and it intensifies his own lack of faith. The film proceeds to quietly build with tension as Toller begins to become more unhinged.
Ethan Hawk is excellent as Toller. This is his film and he takes you on this journey walking a high wire and never falters. Amanda Seyfried is also very good, very honest and real. Cedrick Kyles delivers a very solid performance. He doesn’t go big as you might expect his character would be played. Credit to Schrader as director here for setting the mood and keeping the pot on simmer throughout to set up the big finish. The ending is something you’re going to want to talk about and think about and talk about some more. I’ll leave it at that.
As a recovering Catholic myself, I was particular drawn in by this film. The internal struggle for spiritual clarity is ongoing and never ending. Do I believe in God? Do I believe in myself? Do I act on my faith on either? There aren’t many films that explore these themes. Schrader isn’t afraid to tackle them with his own take and style. It may not be for everyone but you will walk away thinking and talking about this film long after it’s final frame.