What a strange path I have had to take to find you. Roughly translated, those are the last words in Robert Bresson’s “Pickpocket,” a movie that figures prominently in the work of Paul Schrader, who has alluded to its final scene in many of his films, including “American Gigolo,” “Light Sleeper” and his new one, “First Reformed.” A tortuous spiritual journey through debasement and self-deception leads, in the end, to an experience of communion, the discovery of another soul who had been there all along, awaiting recognition.
Which is more or less how I feel — improbably, miraculously, at long last — about Mr. Schrader. He is 71, and has had a long and varied career, but “First Reformed” nonetheless feels like a fresh discovery. More than that: an epiphany.
A first-rate cinema intellectual — as a 24-year-old graduate student he wrote “Transcendental Style in Film,” a study of Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu and Carl Dreyer that is still worth reading (and has just been reissued) — Mr. Schrader has been, to put it mildly, an uneven filmmaker. A certain studiousness afflicts even his most accomplished work as a screenwriter and director, a tendency to put his erudition ahead of his instincts. “First Reformed,” with its evident debt to Dreyer and Bresson (most obviously “Diary of a Country Priest”), might seem to follow in this vein, but it works through its influences to achieve an uncanny directness. It is the portrait of a soul in torment, all the more powerful for being so rigorously conceived and meticulously executed.
The soul in question belongs to the Rev. Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), a Protestant minister in upstate New York. Toller’s church, with its slender steeple and whitewashed clapboards, evokes both a bygone era of American Christianity and a battered civic order, a small-town world of hard work, humility and faith. As the 250th anniversary of the church’s consecration approaches, the pews are mostly empty on Sunday. A few tourists and school groups straggle in during the week. The real religious action is down the road at Abundant Life, a modern megachurch overseen by Joel Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, also known as Cedric the Entertainer). First Reformed, where Toller, a former military chaplain, tends his paltry flock, is known as “the gift shop.”
That materialism bothers Toller — “this is not the church I was called to,” he says at one point, referring not to First Reformed but to the larger ecclesiastical body — even if the peace and quiet suit him fine. He spends his nights in the rectory with a bottle of whiskey and a journal, recording his thoughts in an effort to master the anguish and confusion that plague him. The diary becomes a record of his unraveling, as contemplative melancholy spirals into despair.
The process and its sources are subtle and complicated. Toller is mourning the loss of a child and the end of a marriage. An affair with the Abundant Life choir director (Victoria Hill) has ended awkwardly. Toller’s physical health is deteriorating along with his mental state, and the world is in a horrible state. A young woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks Toller to counsel her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist recently imprisoned in Canada. Mary is pregnant, and Michael can’t bear the thought of raising a child in the face of ecological catastrophe. Toller’s kindness and wisdom, while sincere, are not enough.
There are several ways to describe what happens to him — as a midlife crisis, a psychological breakdown, a political awakening or a religious reckoning. Mr. Schrader doesn’t suggest that these are mutually exclusive choices, but rather shows how the strands of Toller’s experience twist into a rope that binds and scourges him, until extreme actions start to feel logical and inevitable.
Some of the filmmaker’s techniques — the slow rumble and unnerving hush of the sound design; the deep shadows of the digital cinematography (by Alexander Dynan); the smooth, ghostly movements of the camera — make “First Reformed” feel like a horror movie, which in some ways it is. The source of the terror, though, is not a supernatural presence but a metaphysical absence. A poem by Robert Lowell records an 18th-century preacher’s feeling that “the breath of God had carried out a planned and sensible withdrawal from this land,” leaving His creatures to their own infernal devices. Toller stares into the same abyss.
We see it reflected in Mr. Hawke’s face. His brow is bisected by a deep furrow, and his former prettiness has weathered into something much more interesting. The risk in playing this kind of suffering lies in the temptation to externalize the misery, but Mr. Hawke strips away everything that might turn this into a performance. Until the very end, Toller maintains a proper pastoral demeanor, conveying the compassion and self-containment that are aspects of both his temperament and his professionalism. His doubt and anger are confined to his journals. His Gethsemane is inside him.
But his struggle is also a response to external events. The pollution and corruption he perceives aren’t just in his head. He is less and less comfortable with the smiling, full-service spiritualism of Abundant Life, and more and more alienated from the beliefs and institutions that had once sustained him. He finds some comfort in Mary’s company, even as he also starts to suspect that Michael might have been right.
“First Reformed” wrestles with contemporary reality, but it isn’t a work of realism in the way that term is conventionally understood. The dialogue is delivered with formal, almost stiff cadences, and the images are crisp, graceful and plain. This austerity isn’t meant to capture the rhythms of ordinary existence, but rather to present a heightened, filtered, clarified picture of what that existence might mean. It asks us to take another look at what we think we know about politics, religion and other things we like to argue about, and asks nothing more than our quiet attention.
There is something radical about that, and about Mr. Schrader’s stubborn faith in movies. Like Toller’s diary, his film is an assertion of order in the face of chaos, an effort to organize something that is by its very nature an unholy mess: one person’s life.
Rated R. Sacred and profane. Running time: 1 hour 48 minutes.