Chuck Koplinski | Ethan Hawke stuns in 'First Reformed'

Chuck Koplinski | Ethan Hawke stuns in 'First Reformed'

Director/writer Paul Schrader has always been uncompromising with his art. His best screenplays ("Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull") and directorial efforts ("Affliction," "Auto Focus") deal with uncomfortable issues and are, by his own admission, often pieces of self-examination.

Sin, guilt, redemption, self-destruction and the religious nature of these actions are the focus, making his an incredibly intimate cinema — one he invites us to share, explore and learn from.

As with anything challenging, many filmgoers have overlooked his work, missing out on movies that impact and stay with the viewer long after the final credits have rolled.

His latest, "First Reformed," looks at these themes but through the eyes of an informed artist, a man who's been able to look back upon his experiences, apply them and come away with a slightly different but distinct perspective than that of his youth.

This is the first time a man of the cloth has been the focus of one of his features, which is surprising what with Schrader's own personal struggles with his religious faith, a subject that's been present in a great deal of his work. Moving the story within such an arena provides the viewer with the sense that the stakes are higher regarding the protagonist's soul and signals the filmmaker's willingness to embrace his own doubts and salvation.

It would be unfair to say that Pastor Toller (Ethan Hawke) has been forgotten, but he certainly has been pushed to the side. Overseeing the First Reformed Church in upstate New York, a chapel that's been in existence since 1767, he knows that he's been given a simple assignment. More a tourist attraction — and an infrequently visited one at that — than a thriving church, Toller keeps things running as well as he can, tending to his meager congregation, all the while suffering a crisis of faith, unable to pray, unsure of his purpose.

A young parishioner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), approaches him one day and asks Toller if he might speak to her husband. Michael (Phillip Ettinger) is a troubled young man, a climatologist who looks at the current environmental state of the world and, what with his wife being pregnant, questions the wisdom of bringing a child into the world.

Toller finds these conversations stimulating, and what is more he begins to take his charge's concerns to heart, questioning whether more should be done to save the planet, God's greatest creation.

Most films would be satisfied with focusing on this single storyline, but "Reformed" covers a great many other issues. Toller begins to question the purpose of a nearby mega-church, Abundant Life, and its leader (Cedric Kyles) who intertwines the notion that spiritual fulfillment goes hand-in-hand with monetary success. Their affiliation with a local manufacturer guilty of past environmental crimes and its president (Michael Gaston) doesn't sit well either.

The question as to what function a man-of-the-cloth should serve in today's age becomes the driving force behind the film, as Toller is told at one point that "you don't live in the real world," a statement that at first stings but one he comes to accept as a badge of honor.

Toller's journey is similar to that of Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver." The sense of isolation they both feel, that they are both seemingly without purpose and the effect this perspective has on their actions are very nearly identical.

Yet the final path that Toller takes is radically different and speaks perhaps to Schrader's own change regarding how we should react in the face of uncertainty and chaos. The ending will not sit well with some, yet it resonates and offers a sliver of hope and common sense in a world that seems devoid of each at times.

The cast is uniformly good, but Hawke gives the performance of his career. Always an energetic actor, he takes his time here, reflective instead of reactive, utilizing a less-is-more approach essential to letting the viewer relate to his anguish and loneliness. It's an astounding, poignant turn that signals a turning point in the actor's career.

Schrader doesn’t make things easy on the viewer. He shoots the film in the square-like 1:33-1 aspect ratio to underscore Toller’s sense of confinement, there is very little music to tell us how to feel, and there’s more than enough ambiguity to go around. All of this makes for an invigorating, challenging piece of cinema, the kind of work we see far too little of, and one of the standout movies of the year.

'First Reformed' (★★★★ out of four)

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer, Victoria Hill, Michael Gaston, Phillip Ettinger, Van Hasis and Bill Hoag.

Directed and written by Paul Schrader; produced by Jack Binder, Greg Clark and Gary Hamilton.

An A24 Films release. 113 minutes. Rated R (some disturbing violent images). At the Art Theater.

Also new in theaters

Stylish 'Incredibles 2' hits all the right notes (★★★ out of four). A great deal has changed since the release of “The Incredibles” where pop culture and superheroes are concerned. Fourteen years ago, the world of caped heroes with extraordinary powers was thought to be the purview of nerds and overgrown adolescents.

The Marvel Films juggernaut hadn’t begun and not everyone knew that Tony Stark was Iron Man, Captain America was a man out of time and that you just don’t make Bruce Banner angry. The mainstream success of the superhero film has changed the landscape of American escapist fare for good and ill; would anyone care to revisit Pixar’s superhero family, a vehicle through which they extolled and parodied the genre at the same time?

I thought that the sell-by date for these characters had long past — Disney even acknowledges this in a clever prologue that has their main voice talent admitting that, yes, 14 years is a long time — but having seen “Incredibles 2,” I’m willing to admit my hunch was wrong.

While not groundbreaking and at times covering much of the same ground of the first film, under the watchful eye of series creator Brad Bird, the movie is a welcome excuse to check in on the Parrs once more.

Picking up not too long after the first film ended, the Incredibles find themselves in a world in which superheroes have been outlawed. Seen as being more trouble than they’re fiscally worth, costumed crusaders around the world have retired or been working underground.

However, industrialist Winston Deaver (voice by Bob Odenkirk) plans to get the law changed by bringing some of the heroes out of the shadows and highlighting all the good they do. He approaches Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), his wife Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) and their ally Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) to follow his lead, but wants the female of the group to be the first to step into the spotlight. That means her husband has to hold down the fort and mind the kids, a task he’s less than thrilled with.

The children in question are, of course, teen mistress of invisibility Violet (Sarah Vowell), speedster Dash (Huck Milner) and toddler Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile), who can do myriad things, which the family is just discovering.

What with mom and dad forced to reluctantly switch places and assume new roles, the film’s theme of having to adapt as life changes is front and center. This leads to many amusing moments, most of them surrounding Mr. Incredible, who finds himself stymied when forced to help his son with his math homework or faced with the mercurial nature of his teenaged daughter. His sleep-deprived meltdown is a highlight and kudos to Nelson for giving comedic voice to the parental angst so many of us have dealt with.

There are no surprises where the story is concerned, but Bird’s eye makes the film worth watching. The colors pop here and the superheroics are truly spectacular. The scenes vary in regards to their visual intent and composition — sunlit action, noir-tinged moments, dazzling strobe-light sequences and other pieces of eye candy keep you engaged even when the story lags. “Incredibles 2” is the most visually dynamic film I’ve seen this year and while its story is a bit pedestrian, it consistently provides one astounding sight after another.

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