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'Taxi Driver' writer's latest directorial effort a portrait of faith

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Ethan Hawke as Rev. Ernst Toller in 'First Reformed.'
Rev. Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) wrestles with his faith as he sees the destruction of the environment around his small town in Paul Schrader's film, "First Reformed."
Courtesy of A24

Hollywood veteran Paul Schrader made his name writing such films as "Taxi Driver" and writing and directing movies including "Blue Collar" and "American Gigolo." Schrader's latest film "First Reformed," which opens in Minnesota this weekend, is an unsettling portrait of a small town pastor wrestling with his faith.

Schrader grew up in a strictly religious home, and legend has it he never even saw a movie until he was in his late teens. Then he was hooked. He took a deep dive into Hollywood, learning as much as possible while working as hard as he could. He even wrote a book about the religious films he loved.

"But I felt I would never make one, because that's not who I was," he said. "And just a few years ago, I was 69 and I was talking to somebody and I said 'You know, it's time now. It's time to write that movie you swore you would never write. It's time to make your spiritual film.'"

Schrader wrote the story of Ernst Toller, the minister of First Reformed, a historic church in upstate New York. Toller is deeply troubled. A former army chaplain, he convinced his son to join the military, only to see him die in Iraq. Toller's wife, unable to forgive him, has divorced him. 

Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke) counsels a parishioner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried).
Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke) tries to counsel one of his parishioners, Mary (Amanda Seyfried).
Courtesy of A24

"Obviously, he has a propensity for despair, what Kierkegaard called the 'sickness unto death,'" said Schrader. "And he lost his son, he lost his marriage. And he's sort of hanging on in this charity job at a church no one attends."

Toller decides to keep a journal, "to set down all my thoughts and the simple events of my day. I will keep this diary for one year, and at the end of that time it will be destroyed," the character says in the film.

"I know that nothing can change, and I know there is no hope," Toller writes later. Then, one day, he gets a frantic call from one of his parishioners, telling him he needs to come over to her house.

"And then he meets somebody whose despair is even more global than his," said Schrader. "Which is a person who despairs for the future of a human race, and for good reason."

A parishioner tells Toller he believes climate change is such an immediate threat that he is horrified that he and his pregnant wife will bring a child into a dying world. Concern about the human impact on the planet begins to consume Toller. Believing he has little left for which to live, he finds himself becoming radicalized, and considering violence.

Cedric Kyle (better known as Cedric the Entertainer) as Pastor Jeffers.
Better known under his stage name Cedric the Entertainer, Cedric Kyle takes on a serious role as Pastor Jeffers, the leader of a megachurch which maintains the small First Reformed church.
Courtesy of A24

Ernst Toller, Schrader said, is a continuation of a character he's written into films for years, starting with Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver" in 1976 and Julian Kaye in "American Gigolo" four years later.

"When he was young, he was lonely, and he was a taxi driver," said Schrader. "And then he got to be middle-aged and he was anxious and he was a drug dealer. Now he's older — I'm older — and he is in despair and he is a minister. So it is a character I have tracked over the decades."

Schrader builds upon the intensity of Toller's story through his use of the camera: It never moves during a shot. Never zooms, never tracks. It forces audiences to look at the whole image. 

With a spiritual film, Schrader said, you have to approach it like meditation. You have to pull people in, "by giving them less and making them sit. So that's a very, kind of, spooky and tricky way to work, because you are in fact using boredom as an aesthetic tool," he said. 

"And, of course, if you make a mistake you are just boring."

Ethan Hawke plays Rev. Ernst Toller in 'First Reformed.'
Already deeply troubled by losing his family, and in declining health, Toller faces a crisis of faith.
Courtesy of A24

Critics say "First Reformed" is far from boring. The overwhelmingly positive reviews have described it as thought-provoking, disturbing, a thriller and a polemic. Schrader admits he's surprised by the response, but he'll take it. His last film was a bust — and he worried it might be his last.

"And now I have the opposite situation," he said. "I hope I make more films, but if this is the last one, this is a pretty good last one."

Schrader says these are serious times, and he makes no apologies about making a serious movie.