Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Toller, new to the local neighbourhood and seeking a fresh start, as an ex-military captain struggling to overcome the untimely, tragic death of his son. He is asked to visit the home of Mary (Amanda Seyfried), one of the members of his church, who is worried about her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), who has become obsessed and completely disillusioned with climate change, claiming he feels unable to bring a child into a world he feels is on the brink of combustion. This sets off a series of unfortunate events that makes the Reverend question everything he once thought he knew.
The film opens in a striking way, with a compelling scene featuring Toller and Michael having an in-depth conversation about their differing views, each informing the other as the latter speaks about his inability to have faith when he’s presented with such a barbaric world. This remarkable sequence sets the precedence for what is a provocative, intelligent drama, and one that has been gloriously well-written by Schrader – which comes as little surprise. He did write Taxi Driver, after all.
This opening act allows his actors such a platform to show off their credentials, and Hawke shines in the leading role, while it’s worth mentioning Cedric the Entertainer too, who excels in a supporting part. For Hawke it’s such an internalised performance, as we get a sense for the discomfort and anxiety he feels, and the fact he feels so isolated – he too questioning his own religious stance, and his place in the world. Toller is going through an existential crisis, and we get such a sense for the pain the character has gone through, evidently unable, as expected, to come to terms with his grief, and Hawke displays all of the above in a nuanced way.
Schrader, particularly in the last few years, has been somewhat hit and miss, as for every First Reformed comes a generic Niclas Cage action thriller that heads straight to the DVD. But what cannot be denied is his ingenuity, and the inclination to take risks as a filmmaker – and this film is emblematic of that sentiment, as one of his very best films in recent memory. Scrap that, in his entire career.