Paul Schrader's new film, First Reformed, is one of the most artistically daring and morally courageous films of the decade. I expect it will win some awards this year.
In both content and cinematic style, Schrader draws heavily from Robert Bresson's austere and claustrophobic Diary of a Country Priest. Like the lead character in Bresson's film, Shrader's 'priest' is an alcoholic clergyman struggling with doubt, despair and challenges to his integrity under pressure from the demons both within and outside himself. But in Shrader's rendering, the clergyman is a Calvinist minister, Rev. Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), re-imagined in our modern sociocultural context. Like his Catholic counterpart in Bresson's Diary, the tormented minister is also the film's narrator who attempts to contain his dis-ease by keeping a scrupulously truthful, daily diary of any thoughts that enter his mind. Even in this task, he's tormented by doubts about the authenticity of his voice and the purity of his motives.
Rev. Toller also has more than a little Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) in his character. In Taxi Driver, Bickle, a returned soldier traumatized by war, is an insomniac with a growing sense of apocalyptic mission. Toller, who is himself a veteran, is guilt-ridden over the combat death of his only child, a son whose enlistment he encouraged against the wishes of the boy's mother. Toller's guilt is further compounded by the suicide of a younger man he had begun to counsel under complicated circumstances. Like Shrader's Bickle, an unraveling Toller yields to a sense of apocalyptic mission much in the way I suppose such madness takes hold with malignant inevitability in the minds of many mass shooters and bombers.
I saw this film three times. At the first showing we attended, the ending left many in the audience gasping and laughing uneasily. The second time I saw it, there was a conspicuous dead silence and a lengthy pause before the audience silently left. At the third showing, there was more uneasy giggling again and some incredulous "what the hells?"
I'll avoid spoilers, but I will say that the controversial ending of the film worked for me. We can discuss it in comments if anyone is interested.
X-ometer: 98/100 A must see for film buffs.