The pastor of a historic church in a rustic area of upstate New York, Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is facing a spiritual crisis.
An old-style Protestant house of worship, his First Reformed church has a tiny congregation, drawing more tourists than parishioners. It was founded in 1767, serving American independents before the Revolution, and was later part of the Underground Railroad route for abolitionists to help move runaway slaves to safety.
In today's world it feels more like a display at a history museum than a place to connect with the holy. It is essentially a branch office of an upbeat, successful megachurch with the PR-friendly name Abundant Life.
To regretful, melancholy Pastor Toller, we seem to be closer to end times. He tries to deal with his recent loss of a son and his marriage under tragic circumstances, drinking alone in a room that resembles a prison cell. He examines his angst-ridden feelings in a diary that he plans to destroy. He counsels the few church members who seek him in deeply thoughtful, entirely sincere discussions of faith and social responsibility. But today's sinful world, where greed has despoiled the environment seemingly beyond repair, leaves him utterly hopeless.
Something must be done. But what? The answer is a shattering eruption of philosophy, poetry and paranoia.
Paul Schrader, who in 1976 created an unforgettable nightmare about a man trapped in emptiness with his script for Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver," creates in "First Reformed" a parallel story on a higher level. Hawke's Toller won't follow the trigger-happy path of Robert De Niro's psychotic veteran. Yet the road he does travel will lead him to circumstances just as alarming.
He won't bluntly ask heaven to talk to him, but its silence is driving him to feel almost fatally alone. Schrader is again dealing with a man whose mundane daily life disguises a solo voyage to the underworld. The dramatic dynamic of each film, their buried messages, echoes the other.
There hasn't been an American film this compellingly acted in years. Hawke, who excels at playing a cheerful magpie, follows a different route here, never speaking at length as if he has nothing better to do. His facial expression warms now and again with smiles as Toller bikes across his parish, but it never hides his anxiety.
As one of his congregants says, our stewardship of Earth has left it depleted and poisoned. That young man is ready to make a public statement about our self-generated apocalypse, but it would cut him off from his wife, Mary (with Amanda Seyfried superbly playing the pregnant spouse while fully pregnant herself). Perhaps preserving that love doesn't matter; their connection feels abstract and dissolving whatever the circumstances.
As the megachurch pastor handling Toller's difficulties with gentle sincerity and overflowing charm, Cedric Kyles (aka Cedric the Entertainer) doesn't play up the situation or downplay it. "For you," he tells Toller, "every hour is the darkest hour."
Having made 40 years' worth of films with guilt, blood and sin prominent or concealed in the story lines, Schrader understands precisely how to put two or three breadcrumbs on the screen while maintaining an atmosphere of chilling mystery. Toller's ambivalent feelings about mankind's role in the world's decline could be softened for some men of the cloth through uplifting prayer, but Toller feels differently. The movie reflects many images from French master Robert Bresson's "Diary of a Country Priest," whose daily doses of whiskey and ulcer painkillers never seem powerful enough.
It's impossible for Toller to pull free of the crisis and decisions he feels he faces. At times he suggests a martyr, at others an avenging angel. Hawke and Schrader keep us in a sense of dread not much different from the protagonist's.
The catharsis comes in a surprise that might be miraculous or the reflection of a troubled mental state. By passing on a standard climax, Schrader sends us back to the world uncertain yet not necessarily troubled. "First Reformed" is a miracle in its own regard, the rare type of film that leaves us with questions left to answer and for many, a desire to dig into it deeper through a second viewing.