National Post (Latest Edition)
It’s nice to know that, at 71, Paul Schrader can still surprise.
The filmmaker made a splash in the 1970s and ’80s with his screenplays for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ. More recently, he has stumbled as a director. His last three movies — The Canyons, Dying of the Light and Dog Eat Dog — have a 78 per cent rating at rottentomatoes, but only if you add up all their scores.
So it was with trepidation that I approached First Reformed, the story of a New England priest going through a crisis of faith. But if there’s one thing Schrader knows, between his Calvinist upbringing and his minor in theology, it’s faith.
Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Toller, whose tiny clapboard church in upstate New York is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary. He decides to keep a journal for a year — similarities to Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest are very much intended — and consigns to it his doubts and dark thoughts. “If only I could pray,” he muses.
But he finds a cause in congregants Mary and Michael (Amanda Seyfried, Philip Ettinger). Mary asks him to talk to Michael, who wants her to have an abortion because he can’t countenance bringing a child into a world he believes is headed for environmental doom. Initially energized by the encounter, Toller soon starts sliding back into dismay, picking up some of Michael’s baggage along the way.
Hawke is a chameleon — I can’t imagine anyone else who could have appeared in each of The Magnificent Seven, Maudie and Maggie’s Plan these last three years — and he settles into the role of the melancholic priest as though he’d never played anything else. Schrader helps by highlighting the man’s monastic life and cell-like rooms. Even the near-square aspect ratio is ascetic.
Toller’s interactions with the wider world take on a darkly comic aspect, whether he’s suffering the bored tourists who visit his historic church, arguing theology with the cheery Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer, earning the nickname) or presiding over the ash-scattering ceremony of a man who wanted his earthly remains to reside in a toxic waste site.
But there’s also an undercurrent of horror in the stately camera moves, and the weirdly deep thrumming on the soundtrack, as if God was clearing His throat.
It’s all in the service of keeping viewers deliciously, deliriously off-balance as they wait to see what will become of Toller.
Early in the film he tells Michael: “Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our minds simultaneously,” but clearly one of them has to win out in the end. Hope and despair perch on the priest’s shoulders like — well, you know — but it’s anyone’s guess which one he’ll ultimately choose, and a heck of a ride finding out.
I spoke to Schrader at the Toronto festival in 2016 when Dog Eat Dog was screening there. He said he’d made that film “to get redemption” after the critical reception for Dying of the Light.
“Just never be boring,” he told me of his method. “Just do things the wrong way. If you’re supposed to do it one way, just do it the other way.” He’s added mildly: “They’ve not all been good.” But this one is. Redemption was just one more movie away. ★★★★ First Reformed opens June 1 in Vancouver and Toronto, with other cities to follow.