First Reformed: Ethan Hawke Soars in Masterful Drama about Trampled Faith

By Kim Hughes

Rating: A

It’s impossible to overstate just how compelling actor Ethan Hawke is in writer/director Paul Schrader’s stark and deeply affecting drama First Reformed, which is already emerging as one of the year’s best reviewed films. It’s certainly among the most striking.

 Ethan Hawke in a scene from First Reformed.

Ethan Hawke in a scene from First Reformed.

Hawke plays Reverend Toller, a pastor living in an upstate New York that exists beneath a perpetually watery sun. We know from the start that Toller is pained; each night, he journals as he downs five fingers of booze, and the next day ministers to a tiny, splintered congregation. Toller has lost his son in Iraq, but it’s the world around him — the world of the still living — apparently haunting him most.

Notably, there is Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a young pregnant woman whose partner, an increasingly radical environmentalist, is threatening to upend any joy a new baby might bright. But maybe he has a point about bringing a child into such a broken world. It’s the kind of existential question guys like Toller are uniquely qualified to field, right? Well, maybe not so fast. 

As Toller travels irrevocably down the rabbit hole of self-loathing and depression, those in his orbit such as Pastor Jeffers (played with aplomb by Cedric Kyles a.k.a. Cedric the Entertainer) witness and try to halt the deterioration.  

Schrader is arguably best-best known for penning multiple landmark Martin Scorsese films (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Bringing Out the Dead) though his own roster of films, notably 1997’s Affliction, have touched on comparable themes of personal and spiritual disintegration. 

In First Reformed, Schrader takes heaps of risks — its ending will flatten you and it is unrelentingly bleak — but he hits pay dirt thanks to Hawke, whose emotional agony, crammed beneath flowing layers of cloth, nevertheless lands like a sucker punch.   

First Reformed. Directed and written by Paul Schrader. Starring Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, and Cedric Kyles. Opens June 1 in Toronto and Vancouver; June 8 in Montreal, Quebec City, Ottawa, Edmonton, and Winnipeg; June 15 in Calgary, Halifax, and Kingston; June 22 in Victoria; and June 29 in Saskatoon and Regina.