Ethan Hawke absolutely nails his role as the deeply conflicted Reverend Toller in the film “First Reformed.”
Hawke enchantingly brings to life an ailing man of faith, who is leading a tiny congregation at an historic church in upstate New York. Toller opens the film by claiming he can no longer pray, and has resorted to keeping a journal of his thoughts, however dark and twisted they may be. His role at First Reformed is less of a shepherd to a flock, and more of a tour guide for the 250-year-old church, which boasts bullet scares from The Revolution, and a trap door to the underground railroad.
His body is ill, but undiagnosed. His mind and soul are wounded and pessimistic, following the death of his son, and the collapse of his marriage. The church is unable to support itself, and has to lean heavily on nearby megachurch, Abundant Life, to continue functioning — a fact that wreaks havoc on Toller’s already rotting gut.
Plagued by illness, insecurity, and uncertainty, Toller finds himself deeply intertwined with a young couple who attends the church. Michael, played by Philip Ettinger, is a young man struggling to come to grips with, as he perceives, the fact that human beings have destroyed the planet. He is overcome with malaise at the thought of raising a child in a world that is too damaged to survive, and believes his pregnant wife, Mary, should abort their unborn baby.
Mary, played by a career best Amanda Seyfried, does not want an abortion, and hopes that Toller will be able to relieve her husband’s ever-increasing sense of doom. Toller is grateful for the request, having found little value within himself offering church tours and selling souvenirs. Michael’s darkness is revealed to have much deeper implications, and Toller becomes engrossed in the young man’s passion for the broken planet.
Mary and Toller grow ever closer, as Toller’s relationship with God goes from strained to non-existent. Pastor Jeffers, played by Cedric the Entertainer, of nearby Abundant Life takes an interest in personally ridiculing Toller, sparing no opportunity to humiliate him. At first dejected by his rapidly deteriorating circumstances, Toller replaces God with dark obsession, and vanishes deeply into his most basic impulses — finding superficial comfort in staggering alcohol consumption and plots of revenge. No longer able to play the quiet Reverend role he had cast himself in, Toller discovers what he is truly capable of without God, and what he truly wants in his own heart.
To say nothing of the outstanding acting performances, Paul Schrader has written and directed a film so elegant and compelling it is a wonder that “First Reformed” was not first produced as a play. Ethan Hawke vanishes into Toller, and performs pain more convincingly than is comfortable. It is the type of film that assures you every prop in every scene was chosen for a specific purpose, to bring you into the room and feel everything the characters are feeling.
Certain to be an awards season darling, and far from a feel-good movie, “First Reformed” is a brilliant and artistic commentary begging the question, “What’s it all for?”