I doubt the man who wrote Taxi Driver could engineer a more perfect career bookend. In writer-director Paul Schrader's gloriously bleak First Reformed, a parish priest simultaneously undergoes crises of faith, bodily health, paternal guilt, substance abuse, depression and homicidal ideation. And, smack in the middle of his personal apocalypse, who do we encounter? Cedric the Entertainer. Just as, smack in the middle of Travis Bickle's, audiences found Albert Brooks, then a standup familiar from "The Ed Sullivan Show."
Like Bickle, Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a loner. Also like that iconic creation, Toller pursues a calling that brings him into contact with human beings in a manner unconducive to normal connection. The actor keeps his recent winning streak alive with a meticulously measured, quietly mind-blowing performance.
Toller is the pastor of a historically significant but culturally irrelevant church in upstate New York, with Protestant roots going back to the Revolutionary War. Indeed, the pastor ministers to more tourists than parishioners as its 250th anniversary celebration approaches.
The reverend is tormented. Not so much by the dwindling of his flock, the blood in his urine, his skyrocketing liquor tab or even the death of a son he urged to serve in Iraq as by the sense that God has stopped taking his calls. He keeps a journal in an effort to bring order to the chaos in his mind, his inner commentary providing a voice-over as Bickle's did in Martin Scorsese's misanthropic 1976 masterwork.
"When writing about oneself," Toller tells us, "one should show no mercy."
"You're always in the garden," he's told by the friendly but concerned pastor of Abundant Life, the nearby megachurch. Cedric Kyles is entertaining and a revelation in the role.
Just when you're sure Toller can't possibly bear one more cross, a pregnant member of his parish named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks him to counsel her husband. Philip Ettinger plays an environmental activist who wants his wife to get an abortion. In a single scene, he makes his case against bringing a child into a doomed world: Industrial contamination, corporate corruption and climate change, he contends, will render the Earth unlivable in their lifetime.
The intervention backfires. The cleric, it turns out, is the one who sees the light. Rage against defilers of God's creation quickly proves a volatile new bitter in the cocktail of troubles bubbling inside him. Of course, it doesn't help that the church's biggest benefactor is an energy company with a toxic track record, owned by a congregant. Or that Toller and Mary grow increasingly close. Or that she discovers a suicide vest in her garage and turns it over to the ever-less-stable clergyman.
Schrader, 71, knows what you're thinking. He knows you've seen Taxi Driver. He knows you can't help but do the modern math: Righteous wrath plus explosives equals crowded celebration with made-for-TV mass casualties.
At the same time, you never know where a true artist at the height of his powers might go with the primary theme of his life's work. Long before he scripted The Last Temptation of Christ, Schrader considered becoming a priest. (He did briefly become a movie critic.)
Along with Brian Williams' muted soundscape and Alexander Dynan's austere digital lensing, Schrader's vision works in mysterious ways toward a resolution as surprising as it is sublime. Given today's comic-book-driven climate, a picture this profound is honestly a little like a miracle.