This muted, meditative character study stars Ethan Hawke as Ernst Toller, the pastor of a tiny church in Upstate New York whose vaunted place in Revolutionary- and Civil War-era history has made it as much a tourist destination as a house of worship. In its quiet, carefully observed opening moments, “First Reformed” sets the tone for what is to come: This will be a film about discernment, a listening for God’s call that can either result in ecstatic awakening or abysmal despair. With his cragged forehead, rakelike frame and ascetic brush-cut, Hawke aptly embodies the latter, as Toller is revealed to be a man grappling with doubt, hopelessness and a crushing sense of guilt. When a young expectant mother named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks Toller to counsel her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), the subsequent encounters will put Toller on a path of even more punishing self-examination.
Hawke, who has been doing so much praiseworthy work in recent years in such films as “Boyhood,” “Born to be Blue” and “Maudie,” here collaborates seamlessly with writer-director Schrader, who creates still, squared-off frames in which Toller’s conversations can be appreciated in all their highly charged glory. When Toller drops by for a heart-to-heart with Michael, what begins as a mild-mannered pastoral visit becomes a heart-stopping encounter reminiscent of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor passage from “The Brothers Karamazov,” or the electrifying central scene between IRA activist Bobby Sands and a priest in Steve McQueen’s “Hunger.” The stakes are comparably high throughout “First Reformed,” as Toller’s rising sense of spiritual duty collides with a world bent on its own social and environmental destruction, as well as a Protestant hierarchy more interested in corporate survival and consumerist brand management than the simple, self-abnegating work of Jesus.
“You’re always in the garden,” scolds Toller’s boss, a sympathetic bishop played with jovial sincerity by Cedric Kyles (a.k.a Cedric the Entertainer). It’s true that as Toller travels the snowy, unadorned landscape within and without, his penitence often looks like self-pity and weakness. Through exquisite framing and deliberate, unhurried pacing, Schrader gets us under Toller’s skin just enough for his journey — which will either end in radical clarity or abject despair — to make a bent kind of sense, even as its true contours become soberingly, then alarmingly clear. Only a filmmaker of Schrader’s experience and assurance — and an actor of Hawke’s expressiveness and courage — could get away with the most bizarre turns in “First Reformed,” which include a weird, magical-realist dream sequence and, later, a scene that will send viewers either into deep inner contemplation or impassioned movie-lobby arguments.
Interestingly enough, “First Reformed” premiered on the same festival circuit last fall as “Mother!,” Darren Aronofsky’s similarly themed plunge into existential angst, environmental panic and theological questioning. Whereas that film veered fatally out of control, Schrader never loses his grip on a character whose search for meaning is appropriately echoed by a passage from Job at a funeral. Father Toller joins Travis Bickle as an iconic avatar for his age, another loner restlessly searching for truth, moral reckoning and the salvation of a world mired in despondency and pitiless cruelty. Will he succumb to those anxieties or transcend them? Even when the lights come up on “First Reformed,” filmgoers may sense that, like the lamp designed like an all-seeing eye that decorates Mary’s living room, only Schrader knows the answer for sure, and he prefers to keep certain holy mysteries intact.
R. At area theaters. Contains some disturbing violent images. 113 minutes.