With First Reformed, there’s finally a movie that lives up to the hype that has surrounded Paul Schrader since roughly 1976, when Taxi Driver—which he wrote and Martin Scorsese directed—put him on the list of writers to watch. Since then, for each objectively good or even great movie he’s written—Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Affliction, Raging Bull, American Gigolo—he’s pumped out dog shit at more regular intervals.
Maybe his spotty track record is a result of studio interference. Schrader’s previous gig as both writer and director on 2014’s Dying of the Light was taken from him by the studio. 2016’s Dog Eat Dog, which he directed but didn’t write, received the most limited of limited releases, and it’s easy to see why: Most film studios don’t want to see some guy’s head blasted off with a shotgun, especially when that exploding head is in the same room as a sleeping baby. (Maybe these studio execs never saw the last 10 minutes of Taxi Driver.)
But you should know what you’re getting with Schrader. This is a filmmaker who fires on all thrusters whether the material is wretched or sublime. Take First Reformed, which tackles one of Schrader’s favorite recurring themes: faith taken to such obsessive extremes that it nearly turns his characters mad. It, too, has an exploding head. Fortunately, the head in question is removed from its body off-screen, and is appropriately played for horror and sadness, unlike in Dog Eat Dog, where it’s supposed to be high-sterical.
In First Reformed, the head in question belongs to Michael (Philip Ettinger), a young husband consumed with despair over the possibility of cataclysmic global climate change. When he learns his wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is pregnant, he takes his own life rather than bring a child into a decaying and dying world. Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) has counseled Michael to no avail, but their conversation has renewed Toller’s faith. Toller, a bit of an emotional wreck himself—son who died in Iraq, failed marriage, cancer diagnosis—decides to pour his energies into Michael’s cause, studying climate change websites and taking back to his church the suicide vest that Michael was building in his garage.