First Reformed (4 stars)

First Reformed

Sundance London 2018: A never-better Ethan Hawke is the star of Paul Schrader's incendiary drama

The screenwriter of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, Paul Schrader, makes a triumphant return to form following notorious travesty The Canyons and a couple of ignominious Nic Cage vehicles. With First Reformed, which he writes and directs, he once again dives deep into the tortured male psyche, drawing a career-best performance from Ethan Hawke in the process.

Hawke plays Reverend Toller, an ailing priest caring for the dwindling congregation of the First Reformed Church in upstate New York – less a place of prayer, more an immaculately-preserved tourist destination. Its activities and upcoming 250th anniversary celebration are overseen by charismatic head pastor Joel Jeffers (Cedric Kyles), whose own megachurch, Abundant Life, attracts both youthful worshippers and corporate cash.

Toller is experimenting with writing a journal and his philosophical and sometimes brutally honest reflections punctuate the narrative. Self-medicating with alcohol and shouldering the guilt associated with the death of his adult son, he is also troubled by the plight of parishioner Michael (Philip Ettinger) – a young man whose environmental activism has led him into a crippling despair, to the considerable concern of his pregnant wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried). Michael's righteous cause resonates with Toller, who has become disenchanted with the church's direction and affiliations.

A sense of foreboding pervades but First Reformed is far from heavy-handed in its execution, with Hawke's increasingly anxious performance dictating the uneasy tone. The static, meticulously composed cinematography sees the perfect frontage of homes and churches hide a multitude of sin, turmoil and hypocrisy.

The awkwardness and agony of the human experience is crisply captured and relayed with almost matter-of-fact precision by a greying and deeply lined Hawke, embracing and perhaps even exaggerating his age. He plays Toller with pursed lips and a strained smile, as a man who struggles to enjoy a joke, or be truly at ease with people, but whose frustrations are highly sympathetic. Despite the provocative imagery and subject matter, First Reformed is a film that revels in its solemnity and speaks with a furious sincerity.

Screened as part of Sundance London 2018. General release from Fri 13 Jul.

First Reformed

  • 4 stars
  • 2017
  • US
  • 1h 53min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Paul Schrader
  • Cast: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles, Philip Ettinger
  • UK release: 13 July 2018

Rev Toller (Hawke) is an ailing priest at a First Reformed Church in upstate New York, who becomes concerned about despairing parishioner Michael (Ettinger) and his wife Mary (Seyfriend). Schrader has a triumphant return to form in this searching and meticulous drama, with a career-best performance from Hawke.