Directed by Paul Schrader
The challenges of faith are demonstrated with intense anguish in Paul Schrader's First Reformed, a psychologically disturbing drama film that tells the story of Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke). His insufferable life is like purgatory.
It’s a slow-moving yet incredibly arresting chronicle of a somber journey undertaken by the pastor of the first reformed historical church of Snowbridge, which, in the cusp of its 250th anniversary, is practically transformed in a touristy souvenir shop. However, this is the least of the concerns of Toller, whose deep crisis of faith is related to the loss of his only son in Iraq. Besides bearing the guilt of having encouraged him to enlist, the solitary 46-year-old minister is aching all over with both physical and spiritual pain. This is something that could easily take him to a tenebrous state of mental obfuscation. Drinking whiskey doesn’t help with the infirmity, and things only get worse after Mary Mensana (Amanda Seyfried), a pregnant parishioner, asks him to counsel her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), a tormented, hopeless environmentalist.
After Michael’s suicide, the reverend gets closer to Mary. Yet, his suffering is even more excruciating and all the disheartenment makes him another forlorn man. Will she be able to bring him some light and make him change the dire plans he has been preparing for?
Schrader’s confident filmmaking encompasses both restfully imaginary and painfully earthly scenes, with the film’s climax coinciding with an ambiguous finale meant to be pondered and discussed after the credits roll. The maturity and rigor bestowed by the script don’t surprise me either. After all, he was the one who penned Taxi Driver and adapted Raging Bull to be directed by Martin Scorsese.
Brooding in tone and sincerely acted, First Reformed succeeds on the strength of its complex theme, not only examining the hardships of faith but also alerting for the gradual decay of our planet. This is Schrader’s best film since Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and one of 2018's highlights.