Writer/director Paul Schrader (most famous for writing the screenplay to Taxi Driver) has been mostly quiet in the 21st century. He makes a nice return to form with First Reformed, a film about a reverend’s crisis of faith that in some ways recalls the works of legendary filmmaker Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal).
Ethan Hawke plays the pastor of a historic church with a dwindling congregation. He’s reeling from the death of his son in Iraq and is destroying his health with functional alcoholism. When a young parishioner (Amanda Seyfried) confides in him that she’s scared of her husband’s association with environmental radicals, Hawke is forced to examine his own beliefs.
It’s rare to see a movie address issues of faith and belief as thoughtfully as First Reformed does. More often than not, movies either ignore these topics entirely or, if they do focus on them, they do it in a way designed to make church groups feel better about the world. First Reformedtakes a long look at questions like how can a loving God allow terrible things to happen and what would God say about the terrible things humans have done to the world. It doesn’t provide easy answers, nor does it dismiss the idea of belief entirely.
Since First Reformed is primarily a character study, it would not work without a strong lead performance. Hawke is up to the challenge, portraying a man whose fundamental decency is slowly eroding under life’s crushing load with compassion and intelligence.
The ending is a bit abrupt, but First Reformed is good counter-programming amidst the summer blockbuster season.