Paul Schrader made a name for himself as a film writer in the 70s when he penned the screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s critically acclaimed masterpiece Taxi Driver. Since then, his work has divided audiences and he is very much regarded as a hit-or-miss director. His latest piece is psychological thriller First Reformed, which stars Ethan Hawke as troubled pastor Ernst Toller who serves at a historical church in upstate New York. When expectant mum Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks him to counsel her environmentalist boyfriend, he begins to question his faith and subsequently suffers an existential crisis.
Revisiting some of the weighty themes tackled in previous scripts, Schrader crafts an intelligent slow-burning narrative that sees Toller grapple with his ailing health and demons from his past. Framed with a neat 1.37:1 aspect ratio, there’s an austerely minimalist canvas for the carefully observed character study to take shape. In a well constructed scene, a passionate albeit radical speech on climate change and mankind’s ill treatment of the planet triggers a dramatic change in Toller’s outlook on the world. Science and social decay continue to test his wavering religious views and in the build-up to the 250th anniversary celebrations of his parish, his spiralling moral dilemma comes to a head.
Numbing his deep underlying issues with alcohol, Toller utters kind words through a smile even though he has many burdens to carry. Ethan Hawke portrays his inner torment with aplomb, expressing a lot but by saying very little. His visceral performance is understated yet quietly powerful as he manages to achieve authenticity throughout, even when Schrader’s bold artistic visions come into play towards the final third.
First Reformed is a thought-provoking, engaging film that will challenge and shock cinema-goers, and Ethan Hawke brilliantly immerses us into Toller’s increasingly disturbed psyche. Tapping into society’s collective anxieties, Schrader delivers a mesmerising movie that is so strange and unsettling, and yet scarily topical in the craziness of the current climate.