First Reformed (2017)***** | Sundance London

July 9th, 2018
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: Paul Schrader | Cast: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried | US | Thriller | 108′

Paul Schrader’s FIRST REFORMED is a sleek and elegant beast; economical, eco-themed and uncompromising yet firing on all cylinders, powered by Ethan Hawke as an anguished Christian minister fraught with spiritual and existential thoughtfulness.

The film’s richly textured themes of religious tradition, radicalisation and global warming underpin a graceful story of faith, hope, despair and finally love, redeeming all. And we wrestle and ruminate with Hawke on his personal journey from a sombre starting point to a place of peace in a rich character study that sees Schrader back on form after his ill-advised experiments with The Canyons and Dog Eat Dog.

Hawke is Toller, a sorrowing military chaplain whose marriage has failed due to the death of his son. In a white wooden-clad church in upstate New York, he has a new start in life leading a congregation that includes Mary (Seyfried), a pregnant woman who seeks his moral support over her activist husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). It soon emerges that Michael wants to get rid of their child due to his disenchantment with the corporate world he holds responsible for climate change and pollution.

There are comparisons here with Schrader’s script for Taxi Driver and Light Sleeper which also explore despair and disenchantment, although Toller is a much more down to earth decent character than John LeTour (Defoe) and Travis Bickle (De Niro) from the outset, and only seems to lose his sense of direction when his health deteriorates, and cancer becomes a possibility, leading him into a dark place of soul-searching made blacker by a tragedy involving Mary and Michael.

Toller also becomes convinced that a local businessman, sponsoring the church renovations, is actually responsible for environmental pollution on a large scale, and this presents a moral dilemma that further challenges the minster’s troubled state of mind. As the film slides between reality and somewhere more sinister. he desperately tries to lead his followers maintaining respect, compassion and dignity. Seyfried plays Mary as an open and honest woman whose motivations at first seem enigmatic but soon become clear as the two share a mutual sense of desperation and denial. There are strong performances also from Cedric the Entertainer, as a Toller’s ecclesiastical mentor and Esther, a fellow pastor who falls foul of Toller, despite her best intentions, inspiring one of the film’s most killer lines: ” I despise you: you bring out the worst in me”. MT


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