Ethan Hawke has carved out a unique niche for himself on the current film scene: a hybrid of leading man and character actor, his still boyish charm is seasoned by experience and pain that is etched into the lines on his face, he has since the turn of the millennium immersed himself in a series of complex roles that just about any actor would envy. Even when the films themselves have been mediocre, Hawke has stood out; when the films are solid or even remarkable — like Boyhood, Predestination or Born to Be Blue — they’re elevated even further by his presence.
Which brings us to First Reformed, in which Hawke gives another extraordinary performance as Father Ernst Toller, the pastor of a tiny church in upstate New York who leads a mostly solitary life and drinks too much but still makes himself available for counseling or aid to his dwindling congregation. As the church, now a historical tourist attraction, prepares to celebrate its 250th anniversary — subsidized by the corporate megachurch down the road and a local right-wing blowhard — Toller is approached by a pregnant parishioner named Mary (Amanda Seyfried, radiating a sensitive combination of strength and fragility) to speak with her troubled husband.
It turns out that Mary’s spouse Michael (Philip Ettinger) is a radical environmentalist whose despair over the state of the world is seemingly about to lead him down a dark and violent path. Their single conversation is a stark back-and-forth over the state of the world and each man’s emotional temperature. Michael’s actions begin to affect Toller — an ex-military chaplain who lost a son to the Iraq War and had his marriage dissolve as a result after advising his boy to serve — and as Toller’s own future starts to look more grim (marked by increasingly desperate voiceovers as he writes in his journal). he finds himself staring into the same abyss that Mary’s husband plunged into.
First Reformed is an intensely dramatic exploration of loss, faith, redemption and remorse, which makes it no surprise that the film is written and directed by Paul Schrader, whose gritty work as a screenwriter and/or director includes movies like Taxi Driver, Blue Collar, Raging Bull, Light Sleeper, Affliction and others. In many of those films, Schrader’s protagonist is usually a man like Toller, a tormented, lonely figure who embarks on a path of self-destruction that may or may not lead to a spiritual redemption, if not a physical one.
Schrader’s had it rough for much of the last 15 years, getting bogged down in unwatchable direct-to-video fiascos with Lindsey Lohan and Nicolas Cage, but First Reformed is his sharpest effort since 2002’s unsettling Auto Focus. Schrader lays out the movie’s lines of conflict in unadorned terms, not black-and-white but in an austere fashion mirrored by the film’s somber visual palette. Much of the credit for that goes to a well-honed script, his spare direction and Hawke, who brings a profound depth of sadness to Toller that slowly begins to curdle into first despair and then anger.
This may be the finest work Hawke has done yet as an actor who has clearly and noticeably evolved so much during the past decade and a half. His Toller is a man grappling with his own faith (embodied by his shrinking church overshadowed by the super-sized one), his continuing grief and loss over his son’s death, his growing dependence on the bottle and his own mortality, and every detail of those battles flickers across his haunted face. It’s inevitable that his late-blooming resentment toward the megachurch and the power broker behind the anniversary is going to lead to more tragedy.
Or…not? Schrader has never stuck to tried and true conventions as a writer, and while it’s clear where the filmmaker (who did not see a movie until he was 17 due to his strict religious upbringing) stands on the issues he raises, the film takes an unexpected turn or two into surrealism during its final stretch. The shift may be a bit jarring, but not completely out of line with the influences he has cited so often (Tarkovsky, Bergman, Bresson). First Reformed may end on a more formally ambiguous note that one might imagine, but there’s nothing ambiguous about the strength of Hawke’s work or the fact that this is a complete artistic comeback for a writer and director who has always refused easy answers.
First Reformed is out in theaters now.