Ethan Hawke delivers an excellent performance as a whisky-soaked preacher having a crisis in Paul Schrader’s intense, austere drama at Venice 74.
Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle is one of the figures invoked in the nifty new animated sting that plays before every competition film at Venice (La La Land, Singin in the Rain, The Wizard of Oz are among the others) and, of course written by Schrader back in his heyday, he looms large over First Reformed, too.
Hawke is Reverend Toller, a priest at a clapboard church about to celebrate its 250th anniversary. He fails to save a congregant from suicide, though not before the pair have had an ecumenical debate about the future of the planet – on God’s role in ecology and climate change.
It affects Toller deeply, as does the congregant’s pregnant wife, Mary, played by Amanda Seyfried. Toller also keeps a journal, allowing Hawke to pour out his heart and his Scotch every night, so we keep track of his growing spiritual meltdown. It’s a potent combination (like the PeptoBismol Toller puts in his whisky to ease his stomach cramps) as Schrader balances turgid exposition and unflattering camerawork with fascinating ideas and a gripping central performance.
Hawke’s chronicle of helplessness – written in a sombre, stark room – heads towards a climax that requires firm action, an exercising of free will – the only problem being that the audience, too, may choose to believe no more.