Paul Schrader writes fine damn characters. Fine because they are good, damned because their tormented visions keep them in anguished suspension between heaven and hell. Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver is the ultimate Schrader character– one who envisions himself living in a corrupted and fallen world that can only be redeemed through a revolutionary and often violent act.
The Reverend Ernst Toller (a wonderfully anguished Ethan Hawke) of First Reformed comes close to replacing Travis Bickle at the top of the Schrader fine damn character list.
Toller lives a hallowed and hollowed out life amongst a dwindling congregation of true believers. The 250 year old church, going through a reconsecration, has a long history of social activist preachers that predates its prominence in both the American Revolution and the Underground Railroad. Now it is a tourist church under the wing of a mega ministry that preaches the gospel of prosperity and has a roster of corporate sponsors.
The disaffected and unemotional Toller, literally cutoff from himself and his church’s history, struggles to find God and a just and right cause he can passionately embrace. When an environmental activist Toller has been counseling commits suicide, a haunted Toller struggles to find a revolutionary act of redemption.
Schrader is masterfully exploring the boundaries between impassioned faith and terrorism. His visuals are tight and claustrophobic and as gray in color as any Ingmar Bergman film. Schrader directs Hawke to a nuanced and almost Oscar worthy performance that moves from closeted apathy to simmering volcanic fury.
First Reformed is one of Schrader’s finest films. It is his redemption, and a perfect fit for his transcendental style.