'First Reformed': Film Review | Venice 2017

First Look First Reformed Embed Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Arclight Films
Easier to admire than to enjoy.

Ethan Hawke plays a troubled pastor and Amanda Seyfried a parishioner who comes to him for help in Paul Schrader's new drama.

Paul Schrader's roots are showing, assertively and self-consciously, in First Reformed. In this grimly serious tale of a solitary holy man in modern New England whose loneliness, past tragedies and military background draw him toward violence, it's easy to detect one of the writer-director's biggest influences, Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest. It's his most effective work as a director since Auto Focus 15 years ago, but it's a direly bleak affair that will struggle for every viewer it can find.

The material here is ground-zero Schrader: a man of the cloth in an empty old church whose faith is so tested that he rounds the bend toward temptation and extreme unholy action. His daily existence is that of one lived in a hairshirt, deliberately denied of any pleasure or satisfaction other than drink, which was the one vice of Georges Bernanos and Bresson's country priest. But Ethan Hawke's Toller harbors additional demons, ones dating to his time as a military chaplain and, far more important, to the death of his son, of which he experiences everyday reminders.

Adopting an austerely boxy 1.37:1 aspect ratio, Schrader focuses intently on the dutifully regimented routine of pastor Toller (a decidedly middle-aged-looking Hawke), who presides over the arthritic rituals performed within a sparely handsome Dutch Reform church that's about to celebrate its 250th birthday. Derided locally as a “souvenir shop” visited more by tourists than believers, the place is lucky to draw a dozen worshipers to its preacher's earnest but uninspiring sermons.

Devoted to writing with blunt honesty in a journal, Toller is still tortured with guilt over having pushed his son into the army, leading to his death and Toller's own abandonment by his wife. “Courage is the answer to despair,” this Thomas Merton fan tells himself as he ponders whether or not Jesus worried about being liked.

A rare occasion for personal involvement in someone else's life arises when young parishioner Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks Toller for help in reeling in the extremist environmental activities of her husband; although convinced the world will become unlivable any day now, he apparently can't wait even that long, as Mary has found a suicide vest he's hidden away.

Toller's ministrations on behalf of Mary and her husband don't go well to say the least and, professionally, the preacher is continually shown up by the vast popularity of a nearby 5,000-seat super-church run by the charismatic Pastor Jeffers, played with infectious energy by Cedric the Entertainer. The instinctively generous Jeffers tries to help Toller out, as does, in a more intimate way, a woman (Victoria Hill) in the latter's flock, but Toller seems incapable of being opened or softened up by anyone, with the ever-so-slightly possible exception of Mary.

If one has seen even a few films written and/or directed by Schrader, one knows to expect that things will go from bad to worse and, then, worse still; in short, there will be blood (how did Schrader miss using that title before Paul Thomas Anderson grabbed it?). If there is a moral surprise tucked into the final act, it may be because the filmmaker has, this one time, stuck closer to both the letter and spirit of Bernanos and Bresson rather than follow his own more bloodily cathartic instincts.

While the themes and import of First Reformed connect with complete clarity, there's also a certain methodical manner in which Schrader, and his main character, go about their business; there's not quite enough oomph or style in the filmmaking to make you forget about the schematic nature of the dramatic construct. Even while admiring the integrity and intellectual seriousness with which the drama presents religious struggle, a rare thing in contemporary American cinema, you still feel every one of the film's 113 minutes. The movie's concerns are obvious, not subtle, and while intellectual energy abounds, laying in subtext, building underlying tension physical and creating visual dynamism are not Schrader's strong suits.

All the same, this feels 100 percent a Schrader creation; it could not be mistaken for a film by anyone else. In the dozen years since the fiasco of his Exorcist prequel, he's had a rough ride with a strange array of projects, none of which would be ranked among his better work. He's back on familiar ground here, planting the same pungent seeds he's used for 40 years but in rather more fertile soil than of late.

Hawke throws himself deeply into the soul of his troubled and sadly ineffectual character; Toller would profoundly like to be of some use or help, to make a difference, to come to terms with his own shortcomings, and Hawke conveys the man's failure to lift himself up to often painful effect. The can-do Pastor Jeffers sees through him right away. “For you, every hour is the darkest hour,” the upbeat church leader observes. “Do something in the real world.” Unfortunately, for Schrader-written characters, this normally means doing something quite bad. For the viewer, fortunately, it's a little more complex than that.

Production companies: Fibonacci Films, Killer Films, Omeira Studios Partners, in association with Arclight Films
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer, Victoria Hill, Philip Ettinger
Director-screenwriter: Paul Schrader
Producers: Jack Binder, Greg Clark, Gary Hamilton, Victoria Hill, David Hinojosa, Frank Murray, Deepak Sikka, Christine Vachon
Executive producers: Brian Beckmann, Philip Burgin, Brooke Lyndon-Stanford, Martin McCabe, Luca Scalisi, Mick Southworth, Ying Ye
Director of photography: Alexander Dynan
Production designer: Grace Yun
Costume designer: Olga Mill
Editor: Benjamin Rodriguez Jr.
Music: Brian Williams
Casting: Susan Shopmaker
Venue: Venice Film Festival

113 minutes