Already being hailed as a major statement from a giant of American cinema, Paul Schrader's latest film is no quiet reflection on a finished career. First Reformed is as risk-taking as his best work from the seventies and eighties (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, American Gigolo), confronting our strange, terrifying cultural moment by focusing on those it leaves behind.
Ethan Hawke plays Ernst Toller, the pastor of a tiny congregation at a Dutch colonial church in upstate New York. A former military chaplain who convinced his son to serve in Iraq, Toller's guilt over his son's death overseas and the subsequent collapse of his marriage have left him a broken man. Like Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle, he spends most of his time alone, but in a rectory instead of a cab, keeping a spiritual journal we hear in voiceover narration. But this last-ditch effort at self-preservation only comes to magnify his grief and resentment.
Toller's return to life is sparked by his encounter with Michael (Philip Ettinger), an equally desperate environmental activist, whose pregnant wife, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), begs Toller to counsel him. Michael holds forth with precise empirical detail on the apocalyptic threat posed by climate change, voicing the increasingly common feeling that there is no moral justification for bringing new life into a doomed world. Though Toller fails to offer any lasting hope, the debate stirs something within him.
"It was exhilarating," he writes in that day's journal entry, eager to test his faith. But again, tragedy diverts his reawakening, and the two men's very different crises catalyze each other in the film's most provocative twist.
Schrader sacrifices a degree of psychological plausibility for allegorical heft, more like a European art film than an American thriller. But his command of the latter mode is what makes the film work, infusing even its most heavy-handed disquisitions on faith and meaning with palpable suspense. Elegant cinematography, a spare yet immersive score by ambient composer Lustmord, and several excellent performances combat any tendency toward didacticism.
Of course, as an ex-Calvinist intellectual who came to filmmaking through criticism, Schrader's films thrive on ideas. First Reformed relates various forms of secular despair—the loss of loved ones, our civilization's will to self-destruction—to a much older spiritual one, the inability to imagine anything beyond the horizon of one's own life. The connection is apparent at every level of the film's biting, often funny satire of commercialized religion. The evangelical organization that finances Toller's church is beholden to donations from the very energy executive Michael and Mary's activism worked to expose.
But Schrader is not content to let Michael's bleak vision of the world go unchallenged. Near the end of the second act, a pivotal scene presents an alternative view, as the mounting sexual tension between Toller and Mary culminates not in a physical affair, but in a quasi-psychedelic montage of aerial landscape footage. Ungrounded in the film's reality, this cosmic vision of love haunts the events that follow, the promise of everything we don't and can't know for certain.