I ’m not at the Venice Film Festival, but a little piece of it has come to me—Paul Schrader’s latest film, “First Reformed,” starring Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried, which premières in competition at the festival tomorrow—and I’m writing about it in the hope that it will become widely available soon. It’s a fierce film; Schrader, one of the crucial creators of the modern cinema (among his many achievements, he wrote “Taxi Driver” and directed “American Gigolo”), seems to have made it in a state of anger, passion, pain, mourning, and desire, held together by the conflicted religious fury—blending exaltation and torment—that runs through all of his films.
Schrader is only seventy-one, and I trust that he has many years of artistic creation ahead of him. But “First Reformed” nonetheless has the feeling of a summation, of a teeming and roiling avowal of his longtime obsessions, from the distant pressure of family life as a child to the repellent politics currently unfolding daily. In his most recent films, Schrader has been showing what the later years of a career are meant for: freedom, the lack of inhibition. He hasn’t worked in studios for a while. Instead, thrown back on his own resources as an independent filmmaker malgré lui, he has made “The Canyons” (financed through Kickstarter), a fierce reckoning with Hollywood, and “Dog Eat Dog,” in which he dug into the cinematic mythology that has nourished, and sometimes deluded, him and more or less everyone else. Now, in “First Reformed” (which is co-produced by Killer Films, the company co-founded by Christine Vachon, one of the crucial behind-the-scenes forces of modern independent cinema), Schrader excavates deep personal history and bares present-day anger and pain with a rare, wondrous intensity.
“First Reformed” is a devil-may-care film, made with the sort of reckless abandon, the desire to slam the cards of his anger face up on the table, that only an established filmmaker who’s still in a hurry will yield to. This time, the religion is up front: Hawke stars as the Reverend Ernst Toller, who, like Schrader, is originally from Michigan. Toller (whose name is that of a Jewish and Communist playwright and political activist who committed suicide in exile, in New York, in 1939) is the leader of a tiny congregation at the First Reformed Church in a fictitious town in upstate New York. He’s a terse, haunted, austere pastor in a spare, bright, austere, and museum-like church that’s two hundred and fifty years old and functions more as a virtual museum piece than a religious institution. Ernst has about ten regular parishioners, one of whom, a young woman named Mary Mensana (Seyfried), comes to him with her trouble.
Mary’s husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), a radical environmentalist, was recently released from a Canadian jail, where he was held for actions relating to his political activism. Mary is twenty weeks pregnant. Michael wants her to abort the fetus because he can’t justify bringing a child into the damaged world, and Mary asks Ernst to meet privately with Michael at their home. The dialogue between the two men—in its writing, filming, and performance—is one of the mind-bending treasures of the recent cinema, a scene of such agonized intensity as to bring to mind work by Carl Theodor Dreyer (about whom Schrader wrote a seminal book, in 1972). Its power involves revelations about Ernst’s life, and the tortured path that led him to his calling, that turn backstory into drama and open the movie both to the pressures and passions of family legacies and the present-tense bitterness of political follies.
I’m writing about “First Reformed” with an intentional allusiveness; I’d rather err in the direction of avoiding spoilers. Suffice it to say that Ernst is an angry and bitter man; that he directs much of that bitterness at political leaders and much of it at himself; that he grows attached to Michael; and that, despite Michael’s sometimes dubious methods, he finds virtue in Michael’s fight and sense in Michael’s madness. Ernst’s increasing identification with Michael’s extreme activism, along with his deepening friendship with Mary, gives the movie its dramatic core.
“First Reformed” is also a story of apostasy—from above, so to speak—of the repudiation of many of the temporal forms of church life in favor of its rarefied spiritual mission. In this regard, it’s a sort of Kierkegaardian film, contrasting Ernst’s impractically modest ministry with a large nearby institution, the Abundant Life church, a virtual suburban concert hall—enormous, plush, well funded, shopping-mall bland, and run like a business by its wise and worldly leader, the Reverend Joel Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer), who also oversees the practical affairs of First Reformed. The bond between the two men is warm, but there’s conflict looming: First Reformed is about to celebrate its two-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary at a “reconsecration,” providing a major photo op for the state’s governor, for Abundant Life, and for the major donor who’s keeping First Reformed afloat, a local industrialist named Ed Balq (Michael Gaston), whose company is also a major local polluter.
In “First Reformed,” Schrader throws a lot of plotlines together. He brings some out with exotic flourishes of cinematic invention, including one torrential scene, using special effects, that unites Ernst with the visual reflection of his tormented thoughts and utopian visions. (There’s also an exquisite, frank, and simple sidebar of a scene in which Ernst, giving a group of students a guided tour of the church, unfolds its history as a station of the Underground Railroad and reveals the architectural details that embody that history.) Other plotlines, however, Schrader just puts out there, in scenes that point to emblematic traits, some of which have more thematic than dramatic significance, others of which merely ramp up pathos.
It also seems as if Schrader’s philosophical temperament, political rage, erotic ardor, and self-scourging religiosity were fusing uneasily in “First Reformed” with his lifelong artistry as a filmmaker and his talent as a showman. At times, the ideal side of the film and its cinematic side separate, and the gaps register as flaws in the aesthetic texture, letdowns in artistic energy. Sometimes the urge for showmanship, for dramatic conflict, gets in the way of what Schrader is trying to say; at other times, the desire to say something, the force of his own character, takes the place of dramatic emotion. Yet when those sides meet—as they do through much of the film—the high-energy contact is of an ecstatic, arc-bright wonder and terror.