In the opening shot of Paul Schrader's new movie, the camera creeps slowly toward First Reformed Church, a small chapel in upstate New York that has welcomed parishioners since 1767. The place has seen better days, and so has its weary reverend, Ernst Toller (a superb Ethan Hawke). He leads a weekly congregation of about four or five in a building regarded as little more than a Dutch Colonial relic by its owner, a deep-pocketed mega-church called Abundant Life Ministries.
The leaders of Abundant Life plan to celebrate the 250th anniversary of First Reformed with a reconsecration ceremony, a chance to fire up the rusty old organ and hallow these halls anew, in memory of those who built them centuries ago. But for Toller, the faith of those early founders, who once used their chapel to shelter slaves fleeing north along the Underground Railroad, stands in stark contrast to the slick, corporatized hypocrisy of the modern American church — an institution that has betrayed its believers, its mission and, above all, the Earth over which God decreed that man should have dominion.
"First Reformed," in other words, is hardly the subtlest of theological provocations, which may be why it feels like the right one for these none-too-subtle times.
Layering his story with grim warnings about the horrors of climate change and the co-opting of Christianity by the conservative right, Schrader's movie begins in quiet introspection and ends with a crescendo of political rage. It is an exquisite piece of filmmaking and also a blunt, pulpy instrument, a despairing, fully sustained howl of a movie that is easily this director's finest work in years.
That admittedly may not be saying very much in light of Schrader's troubled recent productions, including "Dying of the Light" and "The Canyons." The bitter, much-publicized industry battles that erupted around those projects suggested that Schrader, a Calvinist by upbringing and a rebel by temperament, was enduring his personal stations of the cross.
With "First Reformed," his artistic resurrection is complete, and the arc of his formidable, erratic career snaps curiously into focus. This is a classic Schrader study of the male soul in extremis, seen with a bracing new clarity.
Shot in the square academy aspect ratio by cinematographer Alexander Dynan, in long, measured takes captured by a mostly stationary camera, it marks the director's first conscious effort to mimic the hushed, contemplative aesthetic of directors like Robert Bresson, Carl Theodor Dreyer and Yasujiro Ozu, as brilliantly explicated in Schrader's seminal 1972 book, "Transcendental Style in Film."
A conflicted, achingly sincere man of the cloth, Toller is like a contemporary version of the protagonists in Bresson's "Diary of a Country Priest" and Ingmar Bergman's "Winter Light." At the same time, the emotional extremity of his plight — to say nothing of the somber gravity of Hawke's performance — makes him spiritual kin to the tormented heroes of "Affliction," "Hardcore" and, supremely, Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver," for which Schrader wrote the screenplay.
An ex-military chaplain who lost his son in Iraq and separated from his wife soon thereafter, Toller tends to his flock with the joyless devotion of a man under a self-imposed prison sentence. Much of his anguish is communicated in voice-over from the pages of his personal journal, in which we learn that his health is rapidly declining; his increasingly heavy drinking surely doesn't help.
One of the few bright spots in his life is Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a First Reformed parishioner who pleads with him to counsel her troubled husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). An ex-con and radical environmentalist, Michael is so terrified by the implications of global warming that he wants Mary to abort their unborn child, rather than bring an innocent soul into a world swiftly headed for its next mass extinction.
What transpires between the two men is a dialogue sequence of extraordinary lucidity and emotional power, during which Toller gently reminds Michael that despair exists so that God's hope can shine all the brighter. But something about Michael's doomsday lament — rooted in a young man's naivete, but also in a scientifically accurate view of the planet — nonetheless takes root deep within Toller, feeding on his own despair.
The minister takes some solace in his regular interactions with Mary, a gentle soul who shares her husband's activism if not his fatalism, even as he pushes away Esther (Victoria Hill), a church choir director who carries a torch for him, but earns only his irritation in return.
But the chief objects of Toller's contempt are the leaders at Abundant Life, who turn out to be not just complacent toward the environment's destruction but actively complicit. These include not only the head pastor, Rev. Jeff Jeffers (a terrific Cedric Kyles, better known to all as Cedric the Entertainer), but also Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), a top church donor who happens to work at one of the region's biggest industrial polluters.
That bit of plotting might sound overly convenient, but Schrader, never pretending to be writing anything other than a polemic, gives it a terribly persuasive banality. It feels entirely of a piece with what we see of Abundant Life, every detail of which — the enormous red-carpeted sanctuary, the state-of-the-art media equipment, the hip modern cafeteria with its artfully Scripture-adorned walls — feels ruthlessly accurate and almost comically alienating. Any churchgoer who has entered a house of worship that felt more like a corporate stronghold will know the feeling.
"First Reformed" thus becomes a bitterly corrosive portrait of the conscientious Christian as environmental warrior-revolutionary, in which a lonely man of God is not just disillusioned but radicalized against the institution that called him forth. Schrader is not afraid to draw out the mordant humor in the situation, or to punctuate Toller's grimly mounting despair with a darkly cynical laugh.
At times you may question the calculation behind his immaculate formal rigor, which is impossible not to admire even when it threatens to veer toward archness. The crystalline deliberation of the framing, the heightened eloquence of the dialogue, a particularly surreal shout-out to Andrei Tarkovsky's "The Sacrifice" — there is beauty and grandeur in these aesthetic gestures, but also a sly sense of mischief, as if Schrader were treating his cherished transcendental cinema as the vehicle for some grand postmodern joke.
The ending, with its stark commingling of horror and grace, refutes that fear without banishing it entirely. Early on in the movie, Toller says, "Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind at the same time." And so it is with "First Reformed," which is finally fulfilled rather than torn apart by its contradictions. It is a cinephile's delight and a believer's conundrum, an austere American art film with a bracing B-movie soul, and a story in which the cruelest of cosmic punchlines may finally be no different from the most beautiful accession of grace.
Rated: R, for some disturbing violent images
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes
Playing: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood; the Landmark, West Los Angeles