Some films are true believers.
Some films are atheistic.
Some films are agnostic.
When it comes to films that deal with religion and faith, I tend to gravitate toward the rare ones that fall into that last category…including “First Reformed,” arriving on June 1 to Keystone Art Cinema.
Unlike the certainty demonstrated in many “faith-based” movies, these films tend to be uncomfortable, raw, and have an uncertainty about them that makes them compelling. Forgone conclusions aren’t part of the picture. Think “The Apostle.” Or “The Mission.” Or “The King.” On stage, think of Lucas Hnath’s outstanding “The Christians” (which, for those in Central Indiana reading, is being staged in the fall by Cardinal Stage in Bloomington).
“First Reformed,” written and directed by Paul Schrader and carrying the obvious imprint of the man who wrote “Taxi Driver,” concerns a minister (Ethan Hawke) presiding over a tiny historic house of worship that’s practically in the shadow of a local megachurch.
This isn’t a David vs. Goliath story, though. It’s the story of a man wrestling with despair, searching for purpose. And it looks like he may have found it when a young woman seeks his guidance. She’s pregnant and her husband, who is becoming increasingly involved in the environmental movement, does not believe in bringing a child into a world on a path to destruction.
He listens to them. He doesn’t pander. He tries to engage honestly. And what follows is a somber story of radicalization, one steeped in a religious wrestling match.
The film is harsh, yes, and sometimes difficult to watch. But it comes to that difficulty honestly and, if you’ve seen any early Schrader, you know that “Blue Collar” and “Hardcore” weren’t exactly comfortable viewing experiences either.
The tone is set from the beginning, with slow-paced camerawork, roomscapes that linger a moment even after the characters have left them, and a sparseness both in the interiors and exteriors.
Loneliness, isolation, and introspection are tough to pull off in films and, in the beginning, Hawke’s voice-overs (the priest is writing a journal that he says substitutes for the prayers he’s incapable of) seem contrived and a bit artificial. But they prove essential to telling the story of this dark journey.
Hawke hasn’t gotten the recognition he deserves for his outstanding work in recent films including “Maudie” and “Born to be Blue.” And I’m not counting on that changing here since few people beyond art-house denizens are likely to take a look at this one. But he’s matured into one of the most interesting actors working in Hollywood and attention should be paid.
He’s supported here with a cast that includes Cedric the Entertainer (billed here as Cedric Kyles) and, rising to the challenge of a particularly brutal emotional scene later in the film, Victoria Hill.
But god (or God, it’s up to you) is in the details. And credit for many of those details should go to production designer Grace Yun, art director Raphael Sorcio, and cinematographer Alexander Dynan.
The film takes a number of unsettling turns, any of which is likely to face resistance from the viewer. But that’s part of the challenge and, yes, pleasure of the film. It asks difficult questions of faith without being presumptuous enough to try to answer them.