Paul Schrader is, for those who don’t know, the hard-hitting screenwriter of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi driver, Raging bull, and The last temptation Of Christ. As a director Schrader has been less successful. First reformed is probably his best film in a very long time. Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Ernst Toller, a newly appointed priest at the First reformed church in Snowbridge, New York He has started writing down his thoughts and feelings in a journal. Ernst has just come out of a very difficult time in his life. His only son, whom encouraged to enlist in the army, has been killed, and his marriage failed as a result. He drinks a bit too much, and although he has pains in the abdomen he won’t see a doctor. In other words: he’s a mess. Ernst is a soft-spoken man who rejects all of the bombastic over-the-top preachings heard at other evangelical churches. Because of that only a handful of people are attending mass at First reformed. But the 250th anniversary celebrations of the church are coming and some parishioners would like Ernst to adopt a more spectacular form of pulpit preaching. That’s when Mary (Amanda Seyfried) comes to seek Ernst’s help. Michael (Philip Ettinger), her husband, is a radical environmentalist who refuses to bring a child into the world and wants Mary to get an abortion. Ernst goes to talk to Michael but he remains convinced that there is no hope and that the world will come to an end. Ernst pleads with Michael to be hopeful even if things look desperate, but even he is not convinced that this is true. When Ernst shows up for a second meeting he finds Michael dead. He has shot himself. Among her husband’s belongings Mary finds a suicide vest, which Toller removes and takes with him to church. On Michael’s computer Ernst finds some proofs of the environmental disaster that Michael was predicting. His drinking gets worse and he gets more frantic as the 250th anniversary are approaching. This is a very strong screenplay by Schrader. In the words used, in the directing as well as the acting there is both a minimalism and an intense despair, a gentleness and a harshness. And Schrader has the perfect actor to play all the complexities and the contradictions of Reverend Ernst Toller. From film to film Ethan Hawke has been getting stronger, and here he espouses the life and the words of his character with such force that it kept me riveted to the screen. Perfect.
And the nominees are … Ethan Hawke won some awards this season, and there was talk about an Oscar win. Instead Paul Schrader was nominated for his screenplay.