Art and Film: Paul Schrader’s risky business

Ethan Hawke as Reverend Toller and Amanda Seyfried as Mary in First Reformed

Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Like an opaque work of conceptual art, writer-director Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is a high-risk venture, laden with the potential for artistic failure and embarrassment. But sometimes you just gotta say what the fuck. The risk paid off. The urgent nihilism of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, which Schrader wrote, is on full display, as is the complementary interest in faith manifested in The Last Temptation of Christ, also penned by Schrader. He now applies these sensibilities to the rampant cynicism and venality that seem to be overwhelming the ethical aspects of politics, government, and civil society.

Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke) and Mary (Amanda Seyfried)

The philosophical set-up is presented didactically, by way of Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Toller. He extends tortured, earnest advice to a defiantly idealistic and troubled parishioner and activist who is wondering whether he and his pregnant wife Mary (that’s her name) should bring a child into a world in environmental peril. Schrader gets the central dilemma just right: it’s between existential despair and human potential. What remains unclear is which he believes will prevail.

Toller is a former military chaplain who counseled his son to join the service only for him to die in combat in Iraq. Grief- and guilt-stricken, Toller’s marriage falls apart. His appointment as pastor of the eponymous little church, 250 years old and as austere and authentic as its parent evangelical megachurch is garish and disingenuous, has tentatively rescued him. But he drinks too much and has gastrointestinal problems that adding Pepto-Bismol to whiskey isn’t likely to remedy. Personal tragedies and ulterior agendas eventually push him beyond quiet accommodation.

While the story is improbable, convincing supporting performances – Amanda Seyfried as Mary, Cedric Kyles (that is, Cedric the Entertainer) as the co-opted megachurch minister, and Michael Gaston as the nefarious CEO of the energy company that bankrolls the church – render it credible enough. But what really powers First Reformed to cinematic triumph is Hawke’s deep and unwavering commitment to his role, and the apparent affinity he shares with Schrader for the transcendental style. As Schrader has him inspect his bloody urine and clean the toilet, Hawke as Toller discards all actorly self-consciousness in favor of obtuse candor, childishly blurting out emotional responses to his judgmental superiors and pushing the platonic envelope with Mary. Yet there is no denying the genuineness or plausibility of his passionate naiveté. With this brutal yet lyrical cri de coeur, Schrader suggests that rationalization has reached its limit.

First Reformed, written and directed by Paul Schrader. Starring Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles. Distributed by A24 Films.

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