Tortured by the loss of a son he encouraged to enlist in the armed forces, a church minister and ex-military chaplain (Ethan Hawke) struggles with his faith when a pregnant woman (Amanda Seyfried) and her radical environmentalist husband come to him for counselling, in the latest from Paul Schrader.
It is hard to escape one's roots. This seems eminently true in the case of Paul Schrader, among the finest American writers and filmmakers of his generation, who with First Reformed has returned to a subject he knows so well: the religion of his childhood, the strict Calvinist Christian Reformed Church.
The result is one of his most profound works in five decades. Yet this intelligent thriller is more than a look back; it is also rooted in the present in ways that will surprise and perhaps shock.
First Reformed's hero is a "country priest" — those who know the Bernanos novel The Diary of a Country Priest, Bresson's screen adaption, and Schrader's own important 1972 critical study Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer will understand the connections. Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Toller, an ex-military chaplain who, while grieving the death of his son, decides to keep a journal. He begins with a subject that forms the basis of the film: his meeting with an expectant couple. The husband is an environmentalist conflicted about bringing a child into the world. His wife (Amanda Seyfried), deeply sensitive, reaches out to the minister for advice and comfort. Toller, reeling from both the loss of his own child and a chain of unexpected events, finds his faith tested.
Directing with consummate control and simplicity, Schrader has composed a film of classic rigour and stately grace, where undercurrents of uncontrollable emotions threaten to break apart an orderly life. Shades of Travis Bickle?