It’s a subject in which Paul Schrader is very familiar, and also the one from which some of his best work comes: the focus on an individual whose life begins to spiral out of control for various reasons. It began with Taxi Driver in 1976 and has been explored in others such as 1980’s Raging Bull and 1999’s Bringing Out the Dead. All of them are terrific and haunting works of art that Schrader penned and, at least in those three examples, had Martin Scorsese direct. For First Reformed, Schrader tackles the subject as both writer and director. Borrowing mostly from Taxi Driver but giving it a spin in another profession, a church pastor this time around, Schrader gives us a film that is eerie and unforgettable, and it also features one of the best performances from Oscar-nominated actor Ethan Hawke.
Reverend Ernst Toller (Hawke) is a pastor at the First Reformed church in upstate New York. The church’s 250th anniversary is just around the corner, and a pastor at a nearby megachurch, Reverend Joel Jeffers (Cedric Kyles), is working with Ernst on the big event - organizing all the programming and expecting a huge turnout. But, as the big day approaches, Joel and others around Ernst are consistently worried about him. His health has been in decline for some time, and, following a divorce after the loss of his only child, he lives alone with only a notebook that he challenges himself to write in each day for one year and a bottle of alcohol.
Ernst later meets a pregnant woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). Both are activists who open Ernst’s eyes to the horror of global warming and how the planet is in a rapid decline due to waste and pollution. Their commitment to the cause leads Ernst on a spiral into insanity, and he feels he has to do something about the corruption that surrounds him.
There’s a lot in First Reformed that one can’t quite talk about without getting into spoilers, but Schrader’s direction is impeccable. Some of the issues he brings to the forefront can get a bit heavy-handed at times, with some of the dialogue - especially coming from Ettinger - sounding almost like generic talking points that come from any environmental activist you would encounter anywhere. It’s forgiven, though, as we watch Hawke give a committed performance as Reverend Toller, a man with nothing but the church in his life. Even then, his dedication to his job and his religion is crumbling as he witnesses things around him he doesn’t like and as his health continues to get worse.
Two other notable performances that stand out are from Seyfried and Kyles. Seyfried shows genuine concern as her husband is becoming too angered with what is going on in the world and has the feeling that he needs to do something extreme in order to make things right. She also worries for Ernst as things get worse for him. It’s the best thing Seyfried has ever done.
Kyles, usually known for his comedic chops as Cedric the Entertainer, is surprisingly good as Reverend Jeffers. His turn in a more serious role makes it seem like he was born to take on more dramatic material, and, hopefully, he can get more after this.
First Reformed is a tense, dramatic thriller with an eerie, ominous score that plays throughout. There’s a subtle horror element to it as things unfold, and Schrader takes viewers on a haunting ride that will stay with them for a long time. It’s magnificent to watch, and here’s hoping Schrader and Hawke can pick up some Oscar nods for their work.
The Blu-ray for First Reformed comes with a 1080p high definition, 16x9 center framed 1.33:1 presentation. Its box-like presentation gives the viewer that same confined feeling that Ernst most likely feels throughout the movie before he has the urge to break free from his constraints. The audio is a DTS-HD Master track and sounds nice and clear through the speakers. The only special features are a commentary track from Schrader and a special feature called “Discernment,” which gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the film.
There is a lot to discuss with First Reformed, and I can see it being used for film classes later on down the road. It’s a deeply moving, terrific feature that has plenty to unpack. Despite some minor issues with its ecopolitical subplot, this is a first-rate effort from Schrader, and it also features one of the best performances in Hawke’s career.
First Reformed releases to Blu-ray on August 21.