First Reformed ***1/2

by Ruben Rosario

Ethan Hawke delivers the performance of his career as a frail small-town pastor grappling with a crisis of faith and an ecological awakening in writer-director Paul Schrader's potent character study. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 

The faithful look to their clergy for spiritual guidance, to provide tranquility and solace to those seeking counsel in matters of the spirit. They make rough waters quiet. They push forward and spread stillness in turbulent times. So what happens when a man of a cloth finds himself stifled by his collar? When he finds his resolve shaken to the core?

Reverend Ernst Toller of First Reformed Church in Snowbridge, N.Y. tries to give voice to his despair by starting a diary. Anecdotes from his daily routine, liturgical ruminations and institutional grudges are put on paper in neat longhand. And so he whiles away those hours in the dead of night, fueled by an altogether different kind of (bottled) spirit at his desk when he should be sleeping or perhaps working on a sermon, as his house of worship nears its 250th anniversary.

Toller, the tortured yet clear-eyed pastor at the center of Paul Schrader's “First Reformed,” is another in a long line of men wracked by demons who have dominated the filmmaker's body of work. (His best-known, naturally, is for a movie he didn't direct: “Taxi Driver's” Travis Bickle.) What makes Toller, played by a sensational Ethan Hawke, one of Schrader's more fascinating protagonists is that it gives the writer-director the opportunity to explore the struggle between the mind and the spirit in a way that does not alienate non-believers while refusing to look down on the devout. He traces Toller's downward spiral, striking a parallel between the decay of his body and his mental unraveling.

What triggers this slow-motion meltdown is a request from one of his parishioners. Mary (Amanda Seyfried) comes to Toller and asks him to speak with her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmentalist who's radicalized enough to do some time behind bars. The extended scene that follows shows both men, ailing from their own inner wounds, attempting to reach common ground. Toller struggles to give guidance, as Michael sounds the alarm about an impending ecological collapse. He says he has no desire to bring another life into this world, one his expecting wife has every intention to keep.

Instead of cutting short the stimulating exchange of ideas, Schrader lingers, and he asks viewers to listen closely. The dialogue here is not just an instrument to propel the narrative, and as the film progresses, he stages several other similar scenes between Toller and other characters that clearly come across as conversations he is itching to have with the viewer. The filmmaker's approach is spartan: static shots, clutter-free settings, all framed in the boxy Academy aspect ratio. But rather than keep us at arm's length from Toller's pain, Schrader's austerity brings us closer, slowly enveloping us in the reverend's hermetic world. (The no-frills Bressonian trappings are there for a reason. Schrader has been inspired throughout his career by French auteur Robert Bresson, and his latest effort bears a striking thematic resemblance to Bresson's “Diary of a Country Priest.”)

Toller listens patiently to Michael's doomsday scenario and even opens up, to a degree, about his own tragic past. Rather than dismiss his rant as the ravings of a climate change nut, the reverend is taken with the younger man's words. And gradually they begin making more sense to him. Meanwhile, Toller's superior, Reverend Jeffers (an ideally cast Cedric the Entertainer), takes time out from running a megachurch to voice his concern over the pastor's heavy drinking and overall well-being. Toller assures him he's more than capable of organizing his (glorified gift shop of a) church's anniversary event. “I am happy,” he tells Esther (Victoria Hill), who directs the choir at the megachurch and appears to have a history with the pastor. Of course, Toller convinces no one, least of all himself … as he continues to watch climate change videos on his laptop, a whisky and Pepto cocktail in his hand.

Those familiar with Schrader's films (“Hardcore,” “Light Sleeper”) will probably think they have an inkling as to what happens next: an inexorable descent into vigilantism. But Schrader also likes to toy with viewers' expectations, and here he has a field day driving his narrative to the point where you're certain “First Reformed” is careening out of control and is on a collision course with disaster.

O ye of little faith. Schrader masterfully juggles all these disparate elements: radicalism, the bureaucracy of organized religion, the physical toll of alcoholism. He takes us to some disturbing corners, then dares us to see the light in the darkest tunnel.

If there's a shortcoming to “First Reformed,” it's the way Schrader lets himself get carried away with his depiction of Toller's nascent environmental awareness. He's firing on all cylinders when he's showing the political fallout of Toller's public actions, and how they get him into trouble with Jeffers and other high-profile members of their community. He's also on target when he's juxtaposing the run-down quaintness of Toller's church with the megachurch's size and cheesy opulence. But when Toller uncovers connections between environmental decay and corporate decisions in his own backyard, the facile narrative link, which causes the film to veer uncomfortably close to propaganda, takes away from an otherwise powerful portrait of a man on the verge of snapping.

Which is why it's a good thing Schrader cast Hawke in the demanding role. The Oscar nominee handles the film's jarring shifts in tone like a pro. His layered, deeply felt performance forces you to stare at Toller's abyss within; he's terrific, He also helps pull off a bold, rather abrupt ending that might leave some scratching their heads. One imagines Schrader with a Cheshire cat grin behind the camera as “First Reformed” builds toward a tense climax and then throws a curveball that, at least to this celluloid devotee, is as blissful and satisfying as they come. Schrader, Hawke and the rest of a strong cast urge you to take a leap of faith. You should do so.