Spiritual filmmaker Paul Schrader pushes faith to the limit
The gravitas that Hawke has acquired is used to full effect in “First Reformed.”
By T. T. Stern-Enzi
I find myself infatuated with Ethan Hawke’s face. About ten years ago, I would never have made such an admission because Hawke felt somehow slight to me. I deemed him to be forever indebted to Denzel Washington and Antoine Fuqua for allowing him to bask in the afterglow of “Training Day” (which garnered him an Academy Award nomination for Supporting Actor). To my mind, he was a bit of a poser—earnest at times (“White Fang”), full of grungy chic (“Reality Bites”), constantly striving to prove he had a place (“Gattaca”)—despite the fact that he nearly won me over with his hip romantic turn in “Before Sunrise.” I, of course, bestowed far more credit for that film to his director Richard Linklater and co-star Julie Delpy, but I could begrudgingly admit that he held his own, which was all the praise I imagined myself ever giving him.
I appreciate the fact that he seemingly decided to earn my respect. For “Before Sunset,” the follow-up to “Before Sunrise,” he shared screenwriting credit with Linklater and Delpy, snagging an Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination along the way and continued to tread lightly on the margins, refusing to dive head-first into blockbuster studio fare. The guy camped out on the far more obscure side of the indie spectrum, sharing the screen with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and Albert Finney in Sidney Lumet’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” and re-teaming with “Gattaca” director Andrew Niccol for “Good Kill.”
When he ventured into the multiplexes, it was in “The Purge” or “Sinister,” a couple of early and quite gritty Blumhouse productions when the company was first establishing its name in the horror-thriller game, in the post-torture porn landscape. What started to change for Hawke was his presence and visage. All of a sudden, the man had a welcome degree of gravitas about him. He looked like he had lived, loved, and lost out in some key moments in his life. There was complexity in his face and in his performances. Where he had once basked in glib charm, now Hawke stood quietly and resolutely in the grip of calm solitude.
And, in fact, that’s exactly where Paul Schrader plucked him from for “First Reformed,” the legendary filmmaker’s return to form. As a screenwriter, he made a name for himself with “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” (although my personal favorite from that early 1970s phase will always be his directing debut “Blue Collar” which featured Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto), but the years since his early 1980s run with “American Gigolo” and “Cat People,” Schrader has seemed to wander far and wide away from popular tastes, much like many of his characters.
For example, Toller (Hawke), the reverend of a tiny congregation in upstate New York, finds himself struggling with tragedy and despair all around him. As a former military chaplain who lost his son in battle and his marriage soon after, Toller barely makes it through his routine services and the extra outreach assignments required of his position. He is not capable of ministering to others because there is so little life and hope in his heart. His eyes are dead and everyone who encounters him should immediately recognize this, but Schrader seems to posit that Toller might be able to fly under the radar because few people take time away from their (de)vices to notice.
When Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a newly pregnant wife of another figure (Phillip Ettinger) caught in the tight embrace of hopelessness, seeks assistance from Toller, Hawke embodies the awkward confusion and inability to offer more than platitudes. Via voiceover narration—that is presented as a journal Toller is documenting as a spiritual exercise for himself—shows a man of the cloth desperately trying to convince himself that faith still resides in his soul. Words come easily, but Schrader never lets despair take its foot off the gas either. Scripture states that God won’t put more on any of us than we can bear, although it is obvious that Schrader isn’t as forgiving or merciful.
Toller shares a path with Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) from “Taxi Driver” and the Jesus (Willem Dafoe) from Martin Scorsese’s “Last Temptation of Christ” (another Schrader screenplay), as yet another man beset on all sides by the evils of the world. And like them, he desires to do the right thing, but the line between those two ideals has long been obscured, leaving men separated from any sign from above. It sometimes feels as if Schrader has forsaken the idea of redemption completely, stranding his characters in hell and leaving the audiences in the position to recognize and call it what it is.
All that remains then, in the case of “First Reformed,” is the face of Hawke, which miraculously never gets consumed by the hellfire all around. There is steely grace in those hardened furrows and those eyes, reflecting the abyss awaiting us. He takes us to hell and brings us back to the less depressing state of our everyday world.