starring Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles, Victoria Hill
written and directed by Paul Schrader
by Walter Chaw The title character of Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest is consumed by his inconsequence. Determined to make a difference, he can't even make an impression on the vile inhabitants of the little town that is his parish. It consumes him. It kills him. No one notices. There's nothing to notice. Bresson doesn't even bother to show it. The priest's voiceovers become more urgent, though his faith never flags. He develops terrible stomach pains he seeks to soothe with an austere diet of bread soaked in wine: the Host, I guess, that nourishes communion with the holy spirit, but also the cancer in his gut that consumes him. His last words? "All is grace." Paul Schrader, raised in the Dutch Calvinist Christian Reformed Church, which basically believes that Christians don't earn their salvation but rather receive it as a gift they don't deserve, has made it his life's work to react against his faith--and to live it, too, when reaction fails. Towards the end of his new film, First Reformed, the priest, Toller (Ethan Hawke), writes on his church's whiteboard "Will God Forgive Us?," which is less Calvinist--God already has forgiven us--than a sign of a faith in severe crisis. Schrader's riffed on Bresson's film before with his script for Taxi Driver, still his best-known work despite a career littered with masterpieces of individual fears, men in isolation from God, and spiritual self-loathing. In Taxi Driver, the Priest is a sociopath driving through a Times Square hellscape, praying for the apocalypse to come as a purifying, obliterating rain. He tries to kill himself, but becomes a hero instead. First Reformed is either less cynical or more cynical than that. It's complicated.