Paul Schrader’s taut, meditative “First Reformed” is modeled on Robert Bresson’s “The Devil, Probably” (1977), a hyperbolic examination of religion, cultural breakdown and environmental mass hysteria. Schrader, 71, shares Bresson’s pessimistic world view. He wrote the script for Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976) and, over the last two decades, directed pictures like “American Gigolo” (1980) and “Patty Hearst” (1986) in which the main characters are devoured by moral rot.
Schrader’s last halfway-important film was “The Canyons” (2013), a brooding depiction of Hollywood that was as nonsensical as it was nightmarish. Just who did kill the starlet at the climax? Who cared? “First Reformed” marks a considerable return to form for Schrader. The film is about the struggle for faith in a chaotic world where environmental activism, organized religion and political institutions seem deranged and out of touch with reality.
“First Reformed” is set in the winter of a fictitious town called Snowbridge, just outside Albany. The First Reformed church is preparing for its 250th anniversary, but there is little joy in the occasion. The church functions have been absorbed by the bigger, shinier corporate house of worship nearby, and the church has been reduced to a trivial stopover on bus tours.
Embarrassed by the church’s decline, the pastor, Rev. Toller (a mesmerizing, restrained Ethan Hawke) keeps a journal as a means of both confessional and of exorcising a few personal demons. He drinks, he may be dying, he is tortured by regret and the death of his son in the Iraq War weighs heavily on him.
Toller forms an unusual bond with a young pregnant woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) who seeks counsel for her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), a radical environmentalist who believes there will be no world left in which to bring new life including his own unborn child. After a shocking turn of events, Toller takes on Michael’s ideals and mission. His journal turns more macabre as he plans a dreadful apocalyptic climax to the church’s celebration.
Schrader demonstrates his command of the camera in the film’s opening sequence. In an ominous tracking shot, the church slowly comes into view through a black screen, like a ghost writhing painfully in the darkness. That is followed by three rapidly cut silent shots of the church’s exteriors, evoking a sense that the building’s muted rhythm matches the ritualistic routines of Rev. Toller.
Less successful are Schrader’s attempts at surrealism, as when Toller and Mary levitate and drift across a world of landscapes, cityscapes and environmental catastrophes, or when a salmon-pink-and-purple haze hangs over a toxic landfill. These flourishes lack the poetry and richness of Bunuel’s surrealistic work. The final shot derives from Brian de Palma as the camera weightlessly swirls around Toller and Mary as they embrace.
“First Reformed” is the purest distillation of Schrader’s preoccupations with guilt (he was raised in a strict Calvinist family) and the search for redemption which, once launched, is doomed to fall short. “Can God forgive us?” is uttered several times in the film. In these troubled times, we may not like the answer we get.