Paul Schrader has always been an amazingly protean filmmaker — going all the way back to the late ’70s, when the screenwriter of “Taxi Driver” first stepped behind the camera, leaping from “Blue Collar” to “American Gigolo,” from “Cat People” to “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters,” from “Patty Hearst” to “The Comfort of Strangers,” from “Auto Focus” to “The Canyons.” Throughout his career, though, there are myths, memes, and motifs that remain quintessentially Schraderian: the repressed Calvinist upbringing that resulted in his never seeing a film until he was in his late teens; his fixation on the “transcendental” high rhapsodic austerity of Bresson, Dreyer and Ozu; and, through all the pointy-headed fixation, the way he retained a down-and-dirty B-movie grandiosity.
Schrader’s “First Reformed” spans those high/low, art/pulp obsessions with a reach as arresting as it is (knowingly) nutty. The movie is about a pensive, melancholy reverend in upstate New York, played by Ethan Hawke, who finds redemption in the prospect of becoming a suicide bomber. Taken literally, the film is borderline absurd, yet “First Reformed” feels like a testament. It’s like some purple but restrained drive-in-movie version of the Complete Schrader — think “Diary of a Country Priest” meets “Rolling Thunder.” That’s its limitation (this does not exactly have the makings of a megaplex hit), but also, if you’re a Schrader fan, its fascination.
It’s a challenge for an actor to don a priest’s collar and make you believe it, especially if he’s got a bit of a badass persona. But Ethan Hawke has become such a supple actor that he takes the role of Ernst Toller, a former military chaplain who has found refuge in his life as a small-town reverend, and makes it convincing. Toller, who presides over a Dutch Reformed church that’s at one beautiful and forbidding (white wood, puritan pews, remote location, sparse congregation), is carrying a major burden: He pushed his son to enlist in the Iraq War, and the son was killed there. So Toller is toting around his Grief and Guilt like a set of rosary beads. Like the title character of Bresson’s “Diary of a Country Priest,” he reads to us in doleful tones from his journal and has an illness that is probably stomach cancer. All of this leaves him in a state of suspended identity. Or maybe a state of grace.
Enter Michael (Philip Ettinger), an ardent and deeply disturbed environmental activist whose wife, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), has sought out Toller as a counselor. Toller sips his tea and listens to the young man’s tale of apocalyptic woe: Michael believes that the earth is dying, and the impotence he feels in the face of that catastrophe is driving him around the bend. He’s the sort of guy who doesn’t want to have a child — even though his wife is pregnant — because he thinks the world is doomed. He is, in other words, a paranoid millennial narcissist. Toller speaks words of calming sanity to him: The world is in trouble, yes, but it’s not dying; there’s still hope that the environment can be turned around; keep the faith, because that’s all people have ever done. But he can’t reach a man who’s addicted to disaster.
For a while, the drama echoes Ingmar Bergman’s “Winter Light” — a reverend in a remote parish haunted by his inability to save souls. Schrader works in a stately, dark-toned style that’s far more compelling than the frenetic genre hash of his last two films, “Dying of the Light” (2014) and “Dog Eat Dog” (2016). (The luscious, chocolate-bar cinematography is by Alexander Dynan.) Yet “First Reformed” remains, at heart, a programmatic highbrow exploitation film. I mean that as a compliment.
In Michael and Mary’s garage, Toller finds a bomb sewn into a vest, which is when we learn that Michael’s environmental “activism” is more active than we thought. That said, what could possibly nudge Toller, having a level head about these things, to think about using that vest himself? How about the fact that he’s facing death — or repressing his confrontation with it? Or the fact that his church is about to have its 250th reconsecration, and the parishioner underwriting the event is Ed Balq (Michael Gaston), a local conservative zealot who runs his own corrupt oil company.
At a coffee shop, Toller and Balq have a disagreement that turns into a face-off that turns into an ideological war. But Toller’s transformation isn’t “convincing” — it’s a piece of 1970s grindhouse pseudo-psychology, applied (in this case) to 21st-century violence. He’s like a graphic-novel version of Travis Bickle; he embraces suicide bombing as a form of slumming. (And there’s a romance too!) The weird thing about “First Reformed” is that the more over-the-top it gets, the more you can’t stop watching. The climax is a crazy epiphany of cleansing sin: Toller donning a vest of barbed-wire thorns, strapping on his bomb, all set to the rapturous hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” and then a cut to black that echoes the final moment of “The Sopranos.” In “First Reformed,” Paul Schrader courts respectability and leaves it in the dust, getting stoned on excess. But make no mistake: He’s still one hell of a filmmaker.