I've always been a fan of Paul Schrader's films. His incredible screenplays for "Taxi Driver", "Blue Collar", "Raging Bull" were dark, gritty and at the top of cinema in the 70's and 80's.
As a writer/director in "Hardcore" and "American Gigolo", Schrader explored the darkest sides of humanity and sexuality, unflinching in pulling back the curtains on our worst behaviors.
This year's FIRST REFORMED is Scharder's best film in decades, taking the viewer on a disturbing, immersive trip into one man's troubled experience.
That man is Reverend Ernst Toller, played in the performance of his career by Ethan Hawke (Boyhood, Before Sunset, The Magnificent Seven). Toller is the pastor of a small church in upstate New York. With a handful of congregants and more business through the historical gift shop than the Sunday services, Toller lives a solitary life.
Recovering from a family tragedy, divorced from his wife and alone, Toller's health is suspect, his drinking is heavy and his loneliness is oppressive.
As the film opens, Toller narrates a daily journal that he hopes to keep for a year. Schrader's dialogue is painfully authentic as we hear Toller speak the words he writes, looking for some light in his narrowing solitude.
When a young woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried of "Les Miserables" and "Mamma Mia") stops Reverend Toller after services, she asks him to meet with her husband Michael the next day. Michael is troubled and sees Mary's pregnancy as a gift he can't accept, not wanting to bring a baby into what he sees as our rapidly declining planet and society.
Michael (newcomer Philip Ettinger) provides Toller the most excitement and engagement that the Reverend has felt in years, going toe-to-toe with a religious argument for every global-warming, Earth failing argument that Michael puts forth.
Michael's long speech to Toller is classic Schrader, baiting you to feel one way while driving you in another direction. There's a tipping point between Toller and Michael that's almost palpable. With all of Toller's traditional religious beliefs brilliantly spoken and left in the air, mixing with Michael's numbers-driven statistics on the planet dying, you feel the men slowly moving in different directions. But to where?
To say more would take away from your experience watching the film.
The supporting cast is excellent, including Cedric The Entertainer in a great dramatic turn as Reverend Jeffers, the charismatic leader of the mega-church next door to First Reformed. Jeffers has given Toller his current job and chance at redemption and is Toller's personal counselor.
My friend Bill Hoag (Orange is the New Black) is excellent (you rock, Bill!) as John Elder, staff member/Organist of the church, who sees all too closely the inner struggles of Toller. Victoria Hill is affecting as Esther, a churchgoer with deep feelings for Toller and Michael Gaston (24, Bridge of Spies) is a local mega-industrialist whose factories are the direct opposite of Earth-friendly.
FIRST REFORMED is a fantastic return to form for Schrader. Remember "Taxi Driver". Recall 'The Last Temptation of Christ" and be prepared for Schrader to take you on an unflinching, dark ride into depression, loneliness, mental illness, desparation and destiny.
Hawke has been great before; he's a rock solid performer in everything he does. But he's GREAT here. I hope he gets some recognition from the Academy for his performance as Toller.
From the quiet beginning to the terrifying, twisted & suspenseful conclusion, we watch Toller BECOME something/someone wholly different.
Schrader spent the first 18 years of his life in a strict Calvinist upbringing. The effect of that has always been visible in Schrader's work, from his take on the Gospels in Scorsese's "Last Tempation" to the tortured father George C. Scott played in his 1979 film "Hardcore". Scott spent the film trying to hold onto his strict religious beliefs while chasing his runaway daughter into the depths of the seventies porn scene in California.
Scott's struggles echo here, with Reverend Toller trying to balance his faith with the unrelenting emotional devastation of his own life.
"Who can know the mind of God?" is a recurring theme and a timeless challenge for people of faith who experience tragedy.
FIRST REFORMED doesn't offer easy answers, nor does it actually offer any resolution, but its a brilliant, jet-black voyage into some very disturbing places. I'm always along for the ride with Schrader. I'm never sure where I'm going, but its always a trip worth taking.
The final moments left my jaw dropped well after the credits started rolling, protesting at the screen. I'll be thinking about this one for many days ahead.
FIRST REFORMED gets an A+.