Ever since Paul Schrader's First Reformed debuted, the word has been slowly building. The screenwriter of such legendary films as Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver and Raging Bull has had a spotty career recently, with films like Dying of the Light and Exorcist: The Beginning which wrestled from his control and re-cut. But this tale of a troubled priest, played by Ethan Hawke, sees the 72 year-old filmmaker back to his best.
"I guarantee you…it's so clearly the same author as Taxi Driver," says an excited Hawke. "You look at it and go: 'Oh, that's Paul Schrader.' This is from his heart. It's so powerful. I'm really proud of it." Indeed, it wouldn't be a surprise if Hawke's role as Reverend Ernst Toller received some Oscar attention this coming awards season, just as Affliction – Schrader's 1997 film and arguably his last truly great work – did for its stars Nick Nolte and James Coburn.
Hawke's character is a former United States military chaplain, barely able to hold it together after his own son died in the Iraq conflict. Overseeing a small congregation at the First Reformed church in a fictional upstate New York town, Toller begins to undergo an existential crisis. Barely held at bay by heavy bouts of drinking and praying, it doesn't help his state of being when he encounters Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist with radical views. "He catches the virus from the boy," says Schrader. "The ecological mission virus."
When Hawke received the script, he jumped at it. He’d never played a priest before, which was significant. “My great-grandmother felt certain I was going to be a priest and that I was going to receive the calling. And she used to tell me that I had to listen to the calling. I was petrified. I didn’t want the calling to be a priest; I wanted to be in the arts. So I remember saying: ‘I’ll be able to play a priest!’ But I’ve never been cast as one! It took thirty years of acting in movies to be cast as a priest, but I’m grateful for it. It’s such an authentic part,” he says.
The director admits he considered other actors such as Jake Gyllenhaal and Oscar Isaac for the role. But he only sent it to 47-year-old Hawke. "Ethan had ten years on them and that's an important ten years. He's just the right age." And the actor immediately related to Toller. "He was giving voice to something that I myself was feeling, that a lot of people in my family were feeling. It's a cry or a plea…whether it's a plea of despair or a plea of hope, I'm not really sure, and that's what I love about the movie."
Likewise, Hawke’s co-star Amanda Seyfried plays Mary, pregnant wife to Michael. The actress, who was also pregnant at the time she took on the role, was taken aback when she finally saw the movie put together. “I remember when I saw it for the first time. I had to sit there for a while afterwards, even having worked on it. It’s thought-provoking, it’s terrifying, it’s all these wonderful things that make you want to explore something,” she says.
While the film is more about the spiritual than ecological crisis, those issues hover in the background. On some level, Schrader is pointing the finger at his own generation. “I lived in the sweet spot of history,” he says. “The postwar generation, the Baby Boomers…the least poverty, the least hunger, the most education, the most leisure time. The rosiest period in history. And what do we do with that extraordinary thing? We screwed it up for our children. A product of the greatest generation… we became the greediest generation.”
Hawke concurs, noting that while the film grapples with age-old questions of belief, it also tackles issues that have become more prevalent to mankind since the last century. "What's new is we have the ability and the power to destroy the planet. That's been new since Hiroshima, right? There's been a tremendous amount of anxiety in the air since the end of the Second World War. That is relatively new. But the depression and the despair that comes along with our fear about time and our place in the world? None of that is new."
Cinematically, First Reformed wears its influences blatantly; Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest, which clearly inspired the journal Toller keeps, and Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light, the story of a Swedish pastor undergoing a similar crisis, stand over Schrader's film like guardian angels. If this is a confession, Schrader is happy to ask for forgiveness. He admits to stealing from other legendary filmmakers Andrei Tarkovsky and Carl Theodor Dreyer too for a film "all wrapped tight with the logic of Taxi Driver".
The director, who was raised a Calvinist, is all too aware that films that confront religion can cause consternation among viewers. Back in 1988, he scripted Scorsese's The Last Temptation Of Christ, a controversial portrait of Jesus Christ that led to mass protests outside cinemas from Christian groups. These ugly scenes evidently left their mark on Schrader, who decided for First Reformed to embark on a tour with the film, screening it at seminaries, including Calvin College, where he studied theology.
An open dialogue, it helped circumvent any potential backlash. "[I wanted] to try to frame the arguments rather than have them frame the argument," he reasons. "To get out in front and appear at these seminaries and be written about in the religious press, so that when the backlash hits, they're reacting to you rather than other way around. With Last Temptation, we were always responding to them. They were attacking the film before they'd seen it."
Schrader even shows me on his phone a positive critique from Christianity Today, a publication his father used to subscribe to. "Of all the reviews I've gotten, this was the most satisfying." It's as if themes he's circled his whole career – faith, pain, penance – have all finally coalesced into a perfectly unified statement. "I hope it's not my last film," he says, "but if it is, it's a very good last film."
First Reformed is in UAE cinemas from October 4