First Reformed

Veteran filmmaker Paul Schrader channels Bresson and Bergman in this passionate, intelligent and audacious study of a priest in crisis

Film Review by Philip Concannon | 02 Jul 2018
  • First Reformed
Film title: First Reformed
Director: Paul Schrader
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Philip Ettinger, Victoria Hill, Cedric the Entertainer
Release date: 13 Jul
Certificate: 15

The protagonist in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is the kind of character we’ve seen before. A priest in a small Dutch Reformed Church in upstate New York, Reverend Ernst Toller (an extraordinary Ethan Hawke) is a man consumed with doubt and guilt, and falling even deeper into despair. It’s hard not to think of Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest or Bergman’s Winter Light as we watch Toller agonise over his spiritual crisis, particularly as Schrader has drawn so heavily from those films both thematically and stylistically. Four decades after he wrote the book Transcendental Style in Film, Schrader has fully adopted the techniques of the filmmakers he once studied, and the results are extraordinary.

The static framing and measured pacing might suggest this is a film from a bygone age, but First Reformed is plugged directly into our planet’s current predicament. Toller’s malaise is exacerbated by an encounter with Mary (Seyfried) and her husband Michael (Ettinger), a zealous activist whose talk of the irrevocable environmental disasters we are facing pulls Toller further towards the darkness. “Can God forgive us for what we've done to this world?” the priest asks, and the question weighs heavily on his soul until he snaps. Following the trajectory of another Schrader creation, Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, Toller’s extreme actions in the film’s second half feel both shocking and inevitable.

Schrader is working once again with the inexperienced crew he used on Dog Eat Dog, but the two films couldn’t be more different. While that wildly entertaining crime comedy felt like a filmmaker cutting loose and trying any idea that came to mind, this is the work of a passionate, intelligent and audacious artist who knows exactly what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. You might have to remind yourself to breathe when First Reformed cuts to black after a climactic 20 minutes that grips like a vice, but when you have recovered your senses, your first thought will probably be the realisation that you’ve just experienced a masterpiece.

Released by Picturehouse

Released by Picturehouse