At his best, Paul Schrader is untouchable when it comes to capturing men (and it is almost always men) pinned between the ruinous modern world and a higher, quasi-spiritual calling. He did this, iconically, with his original screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s 'Taxi Driver' and as a director himself in 2002’s 'Auto Focus', an unsettling descent into porn and career dislocation.
Schrader is back on familiar ground with 'First Reformed', the meditative story of an upstate New York pastor (a subtle Ethan Hawke) racked by guilt at his own shortcomings and soon to embrace desperate measures. The filmmaker’s return to a somber Robert Bresson-like mode will work like catnip on his superfans, especially after Schrader’s exploitative 2013 Lindsay Lohan disaster ‘The Canyons’ (little more than dirty-old-man cinema) and two terrible Nicolas Cage movies.
In fact, ‘First Reformed’ plays so much like old-school Schrader, you might confuse it for the work of a dutiful grad student: Once again, we get a tortured Travis Bickle voiceover (Hawke’s Ernst Toller keeps a journal from which, in between hitting the sauce, he reads passages like ‘I know there is no hope’); here, too, is a troubled woman who needs saving (Amanda Seyfried, playing a character named Mary), and Toller’s own memories of his soldier son, killed in Iraq.
The plot takes a timely turn toward homegrown terrorism, and even as cinematographer Alexander Dynan amasses ominous clouds, the film’s break from head-bound matters is a tonic. True to form, Schrader’s ultimate culprit is, of course, the big guy upstairs – not that 'First Reformed' works as an honest examination of faith so much as a picture of its much-telegraphed unraveling.