2017 New York Film Festival: Filmmaker Paul Schrader has always had a lot on his mind when making movies. Whether writing “Taxi Driver” or even any of his more recent and lesser regarded directorial endeavors, he never makes it easy on his audience. Never has that been clearer than in “First Reformed,” Schrader’s latest outing. The film features an incredible turn by Ethan Hawke in the lead role, but can’t get out of its own way. Ponderous, pretentious, and intentionally unsatisfying, it’s as frustrating a viewing experience as it gets. Playing as a special sneak preview at the New York Film Festival, it’s unlikely to break through beyond the niche crowd when it opens next year.
As hard as Schrader makes it on his viewers, Hawke keeps pulling you back in. While the filmmaker is almost attempting a remake of “The Diary of a Country Priest,” Hawke is giving it his all. Your mileage may vary on this one, but it’s impossible not to be impressed by Hawke. He may just be the most underrated actor in the business. Four nominations at the Academy Awards (two for acting, two for writing) suggest a proper level of appreciation, but he deserves more. One day he’ll be an Oscar winner, mark that down in ink.
Set in upstate New York, Toller (Hawke) is a man of God presiding over a small historical church known mostly as a gift shop. He lives a spartan life, free of pleasure or really any possessions. Mostly, he drinks, though he’s recently begun keeping a journal, written in longhand. The church is about to celebrate its 250th birthday, one being handled as much by the megachurch that owns this one as anything. Toller often goes over to the flashy church, run by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer), who is the diametric opposite of him. In poor health, Toller almost seems to be awaiting death, something he might welcome considering the tragic past he’s had.
When a pregnant parishioner named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks Toller to counsel her environmental activist husband, this initially is a simple request. However, that does not go according to plan. Before long, Toller is becoming radicalized himself, with unexpected results. The less you know, the better, but things only get worse for Toller. You won’t be able to see where the film ends up, that’s for sure. Alas, the final destination may leave you scratching your head.
This is one of Ethan Hawke’s very best performances. Few actors are better than him at just talking. All of his turns in Richard Linklater efforts have trained him well. Even when the writing fails him, his acting elevates it. Hawke makes Toller a compelling figure in spite of the film. It’s stunning work. Amanda Seyfried quietly turns in another strong bit of acting as well, though she’s decidedly a supporting character. The same can be said for Cedric the Entertainer too. Small turns are also given to Philip Ettinger, Michael Gaston, and Victoria Hill, among others, but this is Hawke’s show.
Paul Schrader has never attempted work this quiet and sensitive before, which is admirable. At times, there’s a mellow rhythm to the proceedings that threatens to become hypnotic. Then, the spell is broken and you’re back to listening to someone rant. It often feels as if Schrader is talking down to the audience. “First Reformed” is chock full of that dichotomy. He’s always been a better writer than a director, and while this is his most accomplished work behind the camera, oddly his script fails him.
In some ways, “First Reformed” is as much a companion piece to “Silence” as it is to the aforementioned “The Diary of a Country Priest”. If that sounds like cinematic nirvana for you, then you’re in luck. If you’re more like this writer and struggle with those films, approach this one with caution. NYFF usually goes bigger with their special added selections, though bigger doesn’t always mean better. Unfortunately, in this case, smaller meant less satisfying.