In his second feature film, 1979’s “Hardcore,” writer-director Paul Schrader told a story that was steeped in his own strict Calvinist upbringing. It involved a seriously religious man, played by George C. Scott, who goes from his Midwest home to California in search of his runaway daughter.
Why California? A private detective has shown the man a pornographic film in which his daughter is clearly featured. Over the course of “Hardcore,” Scott’s character engages in discussions about sexuality and religion that tell us pretty much everything we need to know both about his character and about Schrader’s own theological uncertainties.
Yet as Roger Ebert wrote of the film’s ending, it is “a mess, a combination of cheap thrills, a chase, and a shoot-out, as if Schrader wasn’t quite sure how to escape from the depths he found.”
Now, let’s fast-forward nearly 40 years. Schrader’s latest foray as writer-director has given us “First Reformed.” And, it appears, his obsession with – and uncertainty about – religion hasn’t abated. Nor has his ability to coherently address that uncertainty much improved.
“First Reformed” focuses on the Rev. Ernst Toller (played by Ethan Hawke) pastor, and caretaker, of a historic church on the eve of its 250th anniversary. He speaks to us, the audience, through a journal he has vowed to keep for a year, which marks the date on which he will burn it.
Toller is a solitary man, a former military chaplain still grieving the loss of his soldier son, whom he had talked into enlisting. The boy’s death in Iraq ruined his marriage, and left him reeling emotionally – until Jeffers, the pastor of the nearby super-church (played by Cedric the Entertainer), came to his rescue.
Or so it seems, because even Jeffers knows that while Jesus left the garden on occasion, Toller dwells incessantly in Gethsemane. And so when a young parishioner named – yes, Mary (played by Amanda Seyfried) – comes to Toller with a problem, it doesn’t take long for him to unravel.
Mary’s husband is an environmental activist so convinced that the world is going to hell that he has asked his pregnant wife to abort their expected baby. A tragedy soon ensues, leaving Toller even more shaken and troubled, especially when the rich business man who is underwriting the church’s anniversary celebration confronts him about his participation in a memorial service performed on, of all things, a toxic waste site.
This, of course, is the point at which Schrader makes an unfortunate artistic choice. Instead of working toward an ending that intelligently, and satisfyingly, merges all the loose plot ends he has conceived, he opts to engage in a kind of magical realism that involves futile gestures, self-mortification and, ultimately, a kind of fantasy dream-fulfillment.
The sad part is that in doing so Schrader wastes the good work of cinematographer Alexander Dynan – whose framing of every scene is flawlessly precise – and by Hawke, who continues to evolve as an actor in independent productions such as this.
In this case, though – to echo Ebert – Hawke ends up drowning in the depths that Schrader himself, again, can’t find the means to escape.