Film

Losing his religion: Ethan Hawke excels as pained pastor in 'First Reformed'

Veteran American filmmaker Paul Schrader is in his 70s, and yet may have made his finest film. Just don't expect an easy watch

Among the many achievements of First Reformed, the remarkable new film from veteran American filmmaker Paul Schrader, is the central performance by Ethan Hawke. He plays Ernst Toller, the pastor of a small Protestant church in upstate New York with a storied history that reaches back to the late 1700s, and whose congregation is dwindling.

Reverend Toller is not a man at peace with himself. A former army chaplain, he encouraged his adult son to join the service in Iraq, where he was killed. He is divorced, and his sleepless nights are spent writing tormented entries in a diary and drinking whisky to dull the pain from an unspecified illness that may or may not be terminal.

Schrader has always prodded at the suffering of his characters, especially the male ones, with an insistence that is discomfiting, but even for this director Toller’s spiritual and existential crisis is extreme. Hawke responds to the demands of the role fearlessly: his is a sombre, powerfully restrained performance, and throughout he wears an expression of clenched gravitas that seems to hold at bay the pain and unrest roiling inside.

“I am happy,” he tells a former lover in one of the film’s few humorous moments, the laughs coming from the preposterousness of the statement. Thanks to Hawke’s contained, darkly intense performance Toller is many things, but happy is not one of them.

It is the run-up to the 250th anniversary of the foundation of Toller’s church, First Reformed, and between showing insensitive tourists around, the pastor is preparing for the reconsecration of the building (in fact it is his boss, expertly played by Cedric the Entertainer, at a nearby mega-church Abundant Life, who is really organising things). But what’s really absorbing Toller is his relationship with his young congregant Mary (Amanda Seyfried), the pregnant wife of a troubled environmental activist. Overcome by despair at the state of the planet, Mary’s husband takes his own life – and his death accelerates Toller’s crisis of faith.

There is an emotional charge and unvarnished ferocity to First Reformed that make it feel like the debut from a hungry young filmmaker

Shot with crystalline austerity, First Reformed portrays Toller’s subsequent actions – he is increasingly drawn to the vulnerable Mary and to the violent activism of her late husband – with a kind of mournful detachment: the clergyman could be in the throes of a breakdown, or he could be experiencing a kind of rebirth. The film leaves such questions thrillingly open.

Part-existential drama, part-horror movie, part-environmental thriller, the film echoes Schrader’s past work – as a portrait of troubled masculinity driven to destructive ends it stands alongside Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, which Schrader wrote – and movies that the critic-turned-director has championed before, notably Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest.

But while drawing on these vaunted references First Reformed remains entirely distinct: there is an emotional charge and unvarnished ferocity to it that make it feel like the debut from a hungry young filmmaker. In his early 70s, Schrader may have made his most urgent film yet.

“As soon as I closed my eyes desolation came upon me,” writes Toller in a characteristically bleak diary entry. This isn’t Schrader’s way – he looks at things straight on and with his eyes open sees desolation almost everywhere. Almost, but not quite, for among all the pain and spiritual distress there are moments of humanity, flashes of profound love. Watching First Reformed is not an easy or reassuring experience, but it is extraordinary, and among the best movies of the year.

First Reformed is in cinemas from July 13

Image: Killer Films

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