Published May 28, 2018With 1972's Transcendental Style in Film, Paul Schrader quite literally wrote the book on spirituality and filmmaking. Despite that text and his lifelong devotion to the church, however, he's best known for his raucous screenplays (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and his audacious directing (American Gigolo, Mishima, the controversial Bret Easton Ellis collaboration The Canyons).
Sure, 1979's Hardcore featured a Calvinist priest, but it was mostly a film about being lost in the porn industry. By his own admission, Schrader hasn't fully embraced Christianity on film until now, and First Reformed is a stunning achievement.
Ethan Hawke delivers a muted, career-best performance as Toller, a reverend going through a quiet crisis of faith as he prepares for the 250th anniversary celebration of his historical chapel. After another sparsely attended Sunday service, he's approached by Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who asks Toller to counsel her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), a staunch environmental activist who is feeling crushed by the seemingly hopeless nature of the world.
Toller agrees, and he and Michael engage in lengthy chats about theology, activism and social justice. Despite their seeming progress, however, Michael dies of suicide and exacerbates Toller's spiritual crisis even further.
First Reformed presents a number of narrative paths that a lesser director would've indulged, sidestepping opportunities for tiresome abortion debates or finger-wagging at Christian hypocrisy. Even Cedric the Entertainer, who plays megachurch boss man Pastor Jeffers, is a three-dimensional and mostly well-intentioned character.
Meditatively paced and shot in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, Schrader's greatest work is neither a stuffy drama nor an alienating religious study. Instead, it's a dizzying and arresting work that pairs psychological thrills and surreal cinematography (which, depending on your taste, gets to be a bit much in a levitation scene) with an intimate look at how far devotion, zeal and passion can take a person before they crack.
First Reformed is a culmination of Schrader's entire career, tying multiple threads together and solidifying him as a true American master. Though he's got other projects in the works, this will undoubtedly be remembered as the quintessential Schrader film.