(director/writer: Paul Schrader; cinematographer: Alexander Dynan; editor: Benjamin Rodriguez, Jr.; music: Brian Williams; cast: Ethan Hawke (Toller), Amanda Seyfried (Mary), Philip Ettinger (Michael), Cedric The Entertainer (Jeffers), Michael Gaston (Edward Balq), Victoria Hill (Esther); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Christine Vachon, David Hinojosa, Frank Murray, Jack Binder, Greg Clark, Victoria Hill, Gary Hamilton, Deepak Sikka; A24; 2017)

Engrossing thriller over the loss of faith.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The former film critic and writer of the respected book on cinema “Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer,” and the screenwriter of Taxi Driver (1976), the uneven but potentially great filmmaker Paul Schrader (“Dog Eat Dog”/”Dying of the Light”), raised as a devout Calvinist, is the writer-director of this engrossing thriller over the loss of faith and how our daily actions in real-life matter more than our pious poses.

It is played out as a grindhouse art film that grabs hold of the soul and forces us to confront our sensibilities in a contemporary population of mostly non-believers. Its aim is to reaffirm that our spiritual growth should never cease, no matter the pressures placed on us by the harsh realities of the regular world. The middle-aged, melancholy Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), dying of stomach cancer, is pastor of an historic small Dutch Reform church in upstate New York. It was in the middle 1800s a stop on the Underground Railroad but now has fallen on hard times and survives with a dwindling congregation as mainly a tourist attraction. The nearby modern parent church, the Abundant Life, draws the crowds and generously foots the bills for the small church’s re-dedication ceremony. The celebration is sponsored by the big and small church’s most generous industrialist donor (Michael Gaston), who is also the conservative company head whose corrupt oil business is listed as the state’s chief polluter. Toller deeply resents being beholden to such a vile zealot and religious figure, and is also not too pleased with the big church’s likable but condescending head (Cedric the Entertainer). But he can’t figure out how to change things, as he keeps a diary of his everyday thoughts. The burnt-out former military chaplain, Toller, whose wife left him after their son was killed during the Iraq War–a war hubby urged his son to volunteer for–is sought out for help by the married pregnant parishioner named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) to counsel her radical environmentalist hubby Michael (Philip Ettinger). This action brings to the fore the pastor’s troubled past and and his anxiety over his uncertain future, as Mary reveals that her hubby wants no part in bringing an innocent child into such a terrible world. The anguished pastor is convincing only when he shares his inner demons with the husband to let him know he can relate to his concerns and is not convincing when giving the usual religious responses of hope and prayer.

Despite being a derivative film that shares the spiritual concerns of such top-notch filmmakers as Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Ingmar Bergman, Schrader’s visions are laid out in his own unique voice. When the befuddled pastor finally lays into the vile extremist industrialist and also discovers a suicide vest in his activist’s garage, the protagonist contemplates maybe committing an act of violence to shake the world out of its moral apathy and, the film though turning increasingly absurd, becomes even more fascinating–as it leads to a sin cleansing redemption in the unanswered silences of the climax. This might be Schrader’s best film yet.

Ethan Hawke plays the tormented Reverend Ernst Toller in Paul Schrader's acclaimed "First Reformed."