First Reformed opens with the Rev. Toller, a played-out preacher (Ethan Hawke), giving a forgettable sermon in an obsolete church, so in those early moments, hopes for an exciting leap into the realm of the spiritual are not high.
Verily, the word congregation hardly seems to suit the smattering of people who show up on Sunday. Toller gets bigger crowds during the week — secular tourists who gawk at the antique wooden beams of the historic 250-year-old church, schoolchildren who show up to peer into the secret chamber once used to house runaway slaves.
In a spare, meticulously crafted movie like First Reformed, there's no such thing as an idle reference, and writer-director Paul Schrader is surely tipping us to something with this nod to the Underground Railroad.
He's reminding us there was a time when religious convictions and political passions conflated, when men of God broke the law, when religious schisms sundered worshipers, churches, and ultimately a nation, ending in bloodshed.
What starts as a hint of violence grows into a threat and then a promise, as a plain movie (no camera movement or music) about a bored country preacher starts to feel, well, like a movie by the guy who wrote Taxi Driver.
Things ramp up almost immediately. After his sermon, Toller is approached by a parishioner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who wants counseling for her troubled husband Michael (Phillip Ettinger).
She's worried, and has reason to be – Michael has fallen in with militant environmentalists, and is contemplating violent action, so Toller learns during a visit to Michael's house. There, they have a riveting conversation about faith, justice, martyrdom, Man's relationship to the earth God created – all beautifully and intelligently scripted by Schrader (himself a lapsed theologian and graduate of Calvin College).
The scene is as dramatically alive as any this year, and finely acted by Hawke, who shows how the rusty, underleveraged Toller comes alive when presented with a challenge like Michael – with a chance to be useful, to awaken his sleeping gift for spiritual engagement.
Ettinger, too, is good, showing us Michael as a young man whose activism and militancy arise from a deep psychic despair, a condition that probably predated the cause he has taken up, informing the extremism that is now so attractive to him. It's depression that Toller sees, understands, and can speak to with authority and meaning.
After that scene grabs you, the movie doesn't let you go. Schrader and his cast find suspense in such unlikely places as church bureaucracy – Toller meets regularly with his boss (Cedric the Entertainer). He runs the nearby megachurch that pays the bills at First Reformed, and who reminds Toller that God provides but rich donors pay, so please be nice to the local polluting industrialist (Michael Gaston), who's footing the bill for First Reformed's anniversary celebration and subsidizing the megachurch, where prosperity is seen (by younger congregants) as a sign of God's favor.
Again, the scenes with Hawke, Cedric, and Gaston are improbably tense, in part because each character is given a rich and forceful voice in a way that has become increasingly rare in modern movies. But it's that first conversation – between Michael and Toller – that keeps ringing in your ears. Michael responds to Toller, and vice versa. In fact, Toller's spiritual enthusiasm and moral agency, once awakened, prove difficult to control.
Schrader, too, seems moved by the spirit, and by the time the drama reaches its out-there peak, you may feel that he's holding snakes and speaking in tongues (certainly he's bold, as befits a religious story featuring a pregnant woman named Mary, and militant deployment of "Onward Christian Soldiers").
The ending is bonkers, but also true in its way – a fitting destination for a movie about love and despair, good and evil, wrestling for a man's soul.