First Reformed

Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried star in ecclesiastical psychodrama First Reformed, a name so forgettable that you wonder what they were thinking when Bjorn Again was sitting right there.

There are shades of Calvary (without the humour, although there is quite a good dirty joke about an organ) to this story of a priest (Hawke) subsisting on a steady diet of whiskey-Pepto-Bismol cocktails and tending to the First Reformed Church in the face of dwindling attendance (the churchgoers probably can’t remember the name either).

He meets a pregnant parishioner (Seyfried) and her environmental activist husband (Philip Ettinger) who’s having doubts about becoming an abba. The seeds of doubt and environmental concern (“Can God forgive us?”) are sewn in the priest’s mind, and Hawke articulates the complex inner-struggles of a man deteriorating spiritually as well as physically with the same intelligence he brings to (almost) every role.

Writer-director Paul Schrader (who wrote Taxi Driver) is fascinated by flawed characters with this misguided sense of righteous conviction. He directs with incredible intimacy, using the square ‘Academy ratio’ and up-close-and-personal camerawork (there’s even a shot from the point of view of a toilet).

Schrader gives the film a still, sullen quality, which makes it all the more disturbing when he slowly cranks up the tension and the weirdness. The picture may stretch plausibility but it holds our attention, so captivating are its performances and thoughtful its ideas. This is a far more interesting dissection of faith than Martin Scorsese brought to the fundamentalist drama of Silence.

First Reformed is a haunting meditation on despair whose title is well worth remembering. Otherwise, just think of it as Lapsy Driver.


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