“Did Jesus worry about being liked?” The unexpected surprise of this year’s TIFF turned out to be Paul Schrader’s First Reformed (Grade: B+), a grotesque dual homage to Diary Of A Country Priest and Winter Light in which the alcoholic rector of a nearly empty church in upstate New York is asked to hide a suicide bomb vest found in the home of a disturbed local man. The subject matter is an outrageous update of the alienation of Schrader’s classic Taxi Driver script for a world of LiveLeak videos and climate change; Travis Bickle’s eerily fizzing Alka-Seltzer becomes pink Pepto-Bismol sludging in a whiskey glass like a toxic spill. But the film itself, shot in Academy ratio in the dead of winter, is quieter and more sensitive than anything else Schrader has directed, with Ethan Hawke giving one of his finest and most moving performances in the lead role.
A former military chaplain haunted by his son’s death in the Iraq War, Hawke’s soft-spoken, hollow-cheeked Rev. Toller tends quietly to the First Reformed, an old abolitionist church weeks away from a re-consecration underwritten by an energy conglomerate, writing by night into a journal as he drinks himself to sleep. He is God’s clinically depressed man, convinced that his true calling is an “all-consuming knowledge of the emptiness of all things,” but challenged to do something as he finds himself drawn into the life of a pregnant young woman (Amanda Seyfried) whose activist husband has lost faith in his own cause. Schrader writes faith as a running conversation, continuing from his protagonist’s narrated journal entries to the tours he conducts at First Reformed to his regular chats with a gregarious, successful pastor (a superb Cedric The Entertainer) who shares Toller’s worries about the future of Christianity.
Even as it toes the edge of satire, pulp thriller-dom, and overwrought symbolism (Seyfried’s character is named Mary), First Reformed persists in its seriousness about the survival of the soul in hard times; I’m not convinced that the final scenes work, but as a colleague pointed out after the press screening, it’s hard to think of an ending that wouldn’t in some way betray the movie’s delicate balance of contemplation and outrage. In the face of his increasingly self-destructive behavior and the apparent cruelty of the world, Toller’s soothing Mr. Rogers voice comes to embody so many contradictions.
That’s a lot more than can be said about Gary Oldman’s Martin-Short-esque turn as Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour (Grade: B-), performed in (and by) heavy prosthetics that make the actor look a lot like Jim Broadbent, but not much like the British prime minister. It’s a weak point for what’s otherwise one of the more enjoyable entries in the post-King’s Speech cycle of arty middlebrow prestige dramas. (This year’s TIFF offered up a lesser example in the form of The Current War.) In many respects, Wright’s film is conceptually identical to Churchill, which mumbled into theaters earlier this year, with Brian Cox in the lead role: the ticking, single-defining-historical-moment time frame; the “demystifying” introduction of Churchill in his boxers and gown, seen from the point of view of a newly hired secretary (Lily James); the Michael-Nyman-esque score; etc.
But the only thing Churchill had going for it was a more believable lead. While nowhere as stylized as Wright’s Anna Karenina, Darkest Hour stages the political maneuvering behind the evacuation of Dunkirk with blatant theatricality. The camera nudges through the cutaway set of the underground Cabinet War Rooms; snippets of conversations between gray-haired parliamentarians loop in and out of a long take like a Greek chorus of disapproval; the “on” light of a microphone paints an entire room red as Churchill reads a speech. (Visually, it’s almost a shock, since cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel’s colors are otherwise so stripped of warm tones that the famous green upholstery of the House Of Commons actually appears blue in the opening scene.)
Balancing out Oldman’s over-seasoned performance, the supporting cast plays it subdued; Ronald Pickup makes for an effective foil as a semi-sympathetic, terminally ill Neville Chamberlain, as does Ben Mendelsohn, cast against type as King George VI. There aren’t thrilling dramatic insights to be found here, but Wright’s showboating is unflaggingly watchable.