A typically bleak and ambiguous film from Schrader. The conflict between religious faith and morality has been themes of Schrader’s work ever since his first script Taxi Driver in 1976, directed by Martin Scorsese. The success of this film would make it a classic of New Wave Hollywood cinema in the seventies, and which brought Schrader fame and critical acclaim early in his career.
The films which followed featured material examining similar themes of masculinity, existentalism and moralilty, but often showed mixed results where these lacked Scorsese’s style and inventiveness. I feel Sydney Pollock’s Yakuza and Shrader’s own Affliction are the closest to capturing his themes of the damaged male psyche and its search for a moral code, although Rolling Thunder, Blue Collar, Cat People, Hardcore, American Gigolo, Last Temptation of Christ and The Walker were all similarly subversive and uncomprimising.
With the exception Cat People, which showed themes of sexual violence and religious obsession, these films are generally about men on a downward spiral. I’d never finished watching his The Comfort of Strangers, which was based on a novel by author Ian McEwan and scripted by Harold Pinter, and therefore should have been brilliant, but I’d found dull and meandering.
Schrader has said that First Reformed is a final bookend to series of films, which began with Taxi Driver, then was followed by American Gigolo, Light Sleeper and The Walker, which were about an outsider who changes identities and values depending on the times and his circumstances. However, I’d felt cinematically Scorsese had gone alot further in creating Schrader’s vision of that world and perspective, more than Schrader was capable of, and this was partly because Scorsese comes from lower New York.
Perhaps you could call these five films Schrader’s ‘God’s lonely man’ series, although I felt Yakuza and Affliction were better. Of these, unlike Light Sleeper, The Walker and American Gigolo, and closer to Taxi Driver and Affliction, it’s not a crime thriller genre-plot but a dark, character study about a man, a priest, coming to terms with his grief and his past. Like Taxi Driver and Affliction,  the protoganist has no real enemies except for the ones he’s created for himself. Schrader also uses the first person voice-over to narrate the character’s thoughts, which I haven’t seen him use since Taxi Driver.
Although critics have praised the film and called it Schrader’s best in years, I’d felt it was less interesting and revealing than his earlier films. Ethan Hawke as ‘Toller’, the priest having a crisis of faith and mourning the loss of his son and failure of his marriage, feels like a typical Schrader character. There are some very moving and well-directed scenes but you get a sense of where this character is headed and it doesn’t take much to send him over the edge. He’s a man, who like all devotees, sometimes has trouble bridging the gap between logic, morality and his archaic scriptures.
After he’s approached by a young couple, the husband of which is an enviromental activist with violent motives, and whom kills himself after Toller counsels him, Toller starts to question why God allows corporations to pollute the planet, and why members of the church refuse to comment.
It’s at this point that Toller, seemingly overcome with rage and depression, takes violent action with the intention of detonating a suicide vest, sacrificing himself, during his own sermon and likely killing innocent members of his congregation.
It was this shift in the character, from bitter but good-natured priest to a suicide bomber committed to taking innocent lives, that felt contrived and inexplicable to me. I understand he’s angry at the church and the members who represent the corporation, who indirectly caused the death of the husband, and arguably did the same to his own son, however, it seems out of character, even for a angry, pious priest to suddenly turn to violence and extremism.