New American Cinema | 2017 | 113 minutes
Stranger Says: Don’t make the mistake I made at the Telluride Film Festival when I skipped this unexpected magnum opus from the writer of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Paul Schrader’s latest film is a return to form. Infused with elements from his Calvinist upbringing and 1950s art-house cinema (check out his newly reissued book Transcendental Style in Film on Bresson, Ozu, and Dreyer), First Reformed revolves around the Reverend Ernst Toller (portrayed with devastating restraint by Ethan Hawke). He is a former military chaplain ministering to a tiny congregation in upstate New York, and he can’t get past the deep grief and spiritual isolation caused by the ill-fated death of his enlisted son. When congregant Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks him to counsel her troubled (and radical environmentalist) husband, Toller discovers his church’s distinguished financial savior is an amoral corporate polluter, and he becomes obsessed with saving a world he believes is destroying itself. The film also stars Cedric the Entertainer as a mega-church pastor and Toller’s overseer. (CARL SPENCE)
SIFF Says:Writer/director Paul Schrader’s (the legendary screenwriter behind TAXI DRIVER and the director of such films as BLUE COLLAR and HARDCORE) FIRST REFORMED is a passionate film, infused with conflicted religious fury, about one man’s crisis of faith and reckoning with environmental decay. That man is Ernest Toller (Ethan Hawke), a former military chaplain still haunted by his son’s death in the Iraq War. He currently leads a dwindling congregation at the First Reformed, a historic abolitionist church in Upstate New York. One of Toller’s parishioners Mary (Amanda Seyfried) comes to him for help. Her disturbed husband Michael (Phillip Ettinger) is a radical environmental activist who believes the earth can’t be saved and wants Mary to abort her baby. As Toller is drawn further and further into Michael’s cause, his own beliefs are challenged, and he gradually finds a new sense of purpose. FIRST REFORMED combines the poetic austerity of a Robert Bresson film with the explosive intensity and violence of a pulpy genre thriller. Meanwhile, Hawke injects Toller with vivid layers of guilt and discontent, resulting in one of his best performances in years.
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