“First Reformed,” Paul Schrader’s riveting enigma of a movie, feels like both a career retrospective and a leap into the unknown. At first glance, this austere, formally composed work doesn’t at all resemble the vividly weird movies for which Schrader, as writer or director or both, is famous: the apocalyptic “Taxi Driver,” the intentionally soulless “American Gigolo,” the deeply scuzzy “Hardcore.” Yet “First Reformed” manages to distill all of them — and probably a few more — into something new and unexpected.
“First Reformed” features Ethan Hawke as Ernst Toller, pastor of an upstate New York church that gives this film its title. It’s really more of a tourist attraction, owned by the megachurch Abundant Life, which in turn is run by the well-heeled Pastor Jeffers, played by Cedric “The Entertainer” Kyles in a fine dramatic turn. Toller joined First Reformed for the solitude, but it’s starting to close in on him. (The film is shot in the rarely-used 1.33 aspect ratio, which is basically a square — or, metaphorically, a box.) Over a drink, Toller begins a diary, and so begins the film: “When writing about oneself,” he narrates, “one should show no mercy.”
Toller’s daily ruminations are disrupted by a parishioner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who fears her husband, Michael (Phillip Ettinger), is becoming an environmental terrorist. Michael’s rhetoric is impassioned; he sews a suicide bomber’s vest. As time goes by, though, Michael’s ideas infect Toller like a virus. Ideas of a heedless society and a man-made apocalypse take root in him. Soon it’s Toller wearing that vest in the mirror — a “Taxi Driver” moment for a new era of new anxieties. Throughout this transformation, Hawke is completely convincing as a man at war with himself, even though he’s often alone on screen.
With its near-stationary camera and quiet central figure, “First Reformed” seems modeled first and foremost on Robert Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest,” but its moments of horror and operatic hysteria also recall the stories of Flannery O’Connor and the freakout cinema of Ken Russell (“The Devils”). With its far-reaching themes and an ending cryptic enough to rival that of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Schrader’s latest is a strange new peek in this filmmaker’s fascinating career.