Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) isn't experiencing a religious crisis of faith; it is his faith in man which is severely in decline. A priest leading a sparse congregation at the First Reformed church in the sleepy upstate burg of Snowbridge, New York, he sees hypocrisy in his colleagues at nearby megachurch Abundant Life and in a population seemingly unfeeling and dismissive of the planet's ailments. Crystallizing his increasing distaste is the daily reminder of his own mortality; he struggles to find reason behind the death of his grown military son, killed in the Iraq War, and he faces a worrisome illness about which he's long overdue for a medical diagnosis and treatment. When pregnant parishioner Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks Toller to counsel her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), a radical environmentalist distressed with bringing a new human being into a doomed world, it acts as catalyst to Toller's personal stark existential epiphany.
Baroquely designed, restlessly written and directed by Paul Schrader (2013's "
The Canyons"), "First Reformed" is an intensely focused character study with the chugging verve and apprehension of a thriller. At the onset, the viewer is left off-balance, unsure of where things are going and what Schrader's intentions are. Is he making an anti-religion polemic? A call to arms for a more caring, empathetic modern reality? By the end, his sharply unexpected destination brings things into focus. In many respects, it is just about the only ending that will do. Getting there is pleasurably, seamlessly, internally provocative, an emotionally challenging tale of a lost soul who has made the choice to shut out the very human connections in which he most desperately needs.
Ethan Hawke (2016's "
Regression"), a consummately fine actor who excels when given three-dimensional roles worthy of sinking his teeth into them, delivers what is possibly a career-best performance. Toller may have deliberately closed himself off from accepting the love of others, but Hawke lays his soul bare. His is a turn of layered complexity, of raw, unvarnished pain, of a goodness which threatens to negatively transmogrify the deeper he uncovers the fraudulence around him. As Abundant Life's overly bureaucratic preparations for the 250th-anniversary reconsecration of Toller's church approaches, something has to give, and eyes must be opened. Hawke makes his character's journey one of quietly simmering, deeply felt desperation, a full-throated scream into a crumpled-up vestment robe.
The contentious Trump-era political landscape of gaslighting, avarice, and climate-change denial may not be categorically referenced in "First Reformed," but there is no denying it must have been near the forefront of writer-director Paul Schrader's mind as he brought this story to affecting fruition. A morality piece whose understandable pessimism is offset by beams of compassion and hope, the filmnot unlike Toller himselfstrives to make sense of a globe evidently spinning off its axis. The one light in our tortured protagonist's life: the concerned Mary, grappling with her own uncertainties and grief, finding solace in her bond with a man of the cloth whom she doesn't realize is searching for answers as much as she. As Mary, Amanda Seyfried (2018's "
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again") takes a potentially thankless rolethat of a virtuous, comely young woman, acting as possible semi-savior for Tollerand breathes poignant life into her. Gripping in its unsentimental clarity of vision, startling in its portentous ruminations on belief, sacrifice, and nature, "First Reformed" is unsparing even as it spares, a cinematic jolt of agony and transcendence.