There are powerhouse movies that knock you for a loop and take weeks to recover from – and then there is Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. Not only is this faith-in-crisis drama one of the legendary writer-director’s most incendiary films ever, it’s one of the year’s very best – a cinematic whirlwind that leaves you both exhilarated and spent. Like the screenplays he wrote for Martin Scorsese (notably Taxi Driver) and the tormented works he’s made about the wages of sin (Hardcore, American Gigolo, The Comfort of Strangers, Auto Focus), Schrader – raised as a strict Calvinist – has never lost his obsession with the war between flesh and spirit.
First Reformed tackles that theme head on. Ethan Hawke, in a performance of raw intensity, stars as the Reverend Ernst Toller, a parish pastor at a Dutch Reform Church whose congregation in upstate New York is dwindling. So, for that matter, is his hold on his vocation: He’s also a secret boozer whose marriage broke up when his soldier son died in Iraq after Dad encouraged him to enlist. His parish – once a stop on the Underground Railroad – is celebrating its 250th anniversary, though the event is being co-opted by its big-brother megachurch, Abundant Life. That behemoth is run by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, a.k.a. Cedric the Entertainer), a fatcat who worships at the altar of money.
The turning point for Toller comes when a pregnant parishioner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), implores him to counsel her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), an eco-activist who’s considering suicide over the sorry state of the planet. Instead of quelling the young man’s desire for a grand, terroristic gesture, Toller catches his passion and existential despair – much to the horror of Pastor Jeffers and Balq Industries, the oil company that’s financing the restoration of the landmark church. Shocking events ensue some surprising narrative left turns, a tribute to Schrader’s abiding compassion for humanity as it finds itself stranded between heaven and earth.
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No one would call First Reformed a fun time at the movies. But its ambition, fervor and vitality are indisputable. Schrader has a knack for taking an audience out of its comfort zone, as with a surreal scene in which Toller and Mary fly above our endangered planet like all-seeing souls on a magic carpet ride to doom. And the connection between these two, which the sublime Seyfried makes touchingly palpable, finds expression in a climactic scene that will either drive you up the wall or inspire you to revel in its ecstatic beauty.
Schrader is dealing with an essential factor without which faith is not possible: love in all its manifestations, carnal to sacred. Film scholars will reference and catalog the influences, from Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest to Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light. But you don’t need a degree in cinema to have this existential drama shake you to the core. In this age of numbing Hollywood formula, First Reformed offers a kind of salvation – it’s a movie that matters.