The new Paul Schrader movie, “First Reformed,” plays like a summation of a career – a distillation of the themes that have dominated the work of the screenwriter/director since the 1970s.
It’s deeply spiritual, but in a Schrader kind of way, just like his earlier movies, “Taxi Driver,” “American Gigolo” and “Affliction.”
Ethan Hawke stars as the lonely Rev. Ernst Toller, who presides over a historic but small Dutch Reform church in upstate New York. He and his wife are divorced, in part because he encouraged their son to join the military during the Iraq War – and their son was killed.
He’s grieving, and he spends a lot of his evening drinking and being self-destructive, even though he is supposed to be preparing for a celebration of the church’s 250th anniversary.
Then a pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried) asks for the reverend to counsel her husband. The husband is a radical environmentalist and despairs over the planet’s future – so much so that he wants his wife to have an abortion, thinking that the world will be unlivable in 50 years.
Toller is strangely invigorated by the husband’s arguments, but this renewed vigor leads to a troubling flirtation with extreme violence.
Schrader tightly controls the austere tone and mood of “First Reformed,” almost as if he’s making a movie about obsessive gloom. But that’s not going to sell tickets at the box office, so the distributor is calling the film a spiritual thriller.
It’s more about the arc of a spiritual human being and whether he can find salvation. In Schrader’s world, any salvation is usually accompanied by Old Testament-style violence.
As Toller, Hawke delivers a nuanced performance of a grieving, lonely man who’s searching for answers. Seyfried, meanwhile, offers a glimmer of hope as the pregnant Mary. And, yes, Schrader means for that name to have biblical implications.
For literary fans, Schrader also crafts a scene that’s an homage to Flannery O’Connor’s Hazel Motes of “Wise Blood.” And for fans of transcendentalism, there’s a levitation scene that’s mesmerizing.
“First Reformed” is an art movie, pure and simple. It won’t attract the teenage action-loving crowd. It won’t break any box-office records. But it’s beautiful, thoughtful and full of grace.
“First Reformed” screened Tuesday at South by Southwest. No other screenings are planned during the festival. A24 will release the film later this year. Grade: B+