Oh, how I expected and wanted to love Paul Schrader's First Reformed.
I consider Schrader one of the finest screenwriters of the past half-century, his contributions especially to the likes of The Yakuza, Obsession, Taxi Driver and Bringing Out the Dead exemplary examples of his genius on the page. While Schrader's directorial efforts have proven decidedly more scattershot, rarely does he bore and, on occasion, he has delivered a real knockout, with Affliction perhaps being his masterpiece.
The thought of Schrader teaming with Ethan Hawke, an actor I've admired in many pictures, from Reality Bates to Richard Linklater's Before trilogy, for me set expectations rather high for their collaboration on First Reformed, a film that looked positively spine-tingling in its trailer.
Alas, I left First Reformed floored with the contributions of merely one of these two men. For while Hawke's performance as the despondent Father Toller is a truly mesmerizing portrayal, among the actor's most startling work to date, the film around him is a meandering slog that rarely suggests the brilliance of Schrader's past work.
Hawke's Toller is the pastor of a microscopic church in upstate New York. Still beside himself over the death of his son, Toller has descended into alcoholism and chosen to ignore the illness that is undoubtedly ravaging his body. Toller is sleepwalking through life until the entrance of Mary (Amanda Seyfried). Mary is pregnant with the son of Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmentalist who can't bear the thought of bringing a child into a world he views as doomed.
Toller finds himself consumed with reflection on Michael's concerns and is all the more rattled by the discovery of a suicide vest in the couple's garage, shortly followed by Michael's suicide. His health gradually failing and dependency on booze increasing, Toller continues to counsel Mary while also finding himself at odds with Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), a chemical magnate concerned with Toller's newfound interest in environmental causes.
First Reformed is beautifully shot by Alexander Dynan and has that same unbearably dreary look and feel of prior, superior Schrader works. Hawke does heaps of heavy lifting but in the end, Schrader's curiously uninvolving script and the plodding pace of the proceedings left me on the verge of dozing off. The picture may be more dignified than the flamboyant likes of American Gigolo and Cat People but it isn't remotely as compelling.
Hawke's committed turn aside, First Reformed is a monotonous miss.