Even Jesus wasn't always in the Garden.
The Gist: Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Ernst Toller, pastor of First Reformed Church in upstate New York. He's a man bearing a weight of personal tragedy, while searching for his place in the modern world as a man of God - documenting his tortured thoughts in a hand-written journal. His congregation is dwindling; First Reformed is more museum than active place of worship, in contrast to the nearby, thriving Abundant Life. Then he is asked by his pregnant congregant Mary (Amanda Seyfried) to speak to her husband Michael, a deeply troubled environmental activist. The encounter has a catalytic effect in the mind of the already troubled priest, sending him down an unexpected and obsessive path.
The Juice: Written and directed by veteran Paul Schrader (the pen behind challenging stories like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull), First Reformed is as tough-minded a film as you'll see this year, while also starkly beautiful. It's a lean and sharp-etched piece of storytelling, boxed in by the aspect ratio of its frames (call it 'narrowscreen') and presented largely with static camera shots. It also has a minimal music score, creating an austere feel in keeping with the Calvinist setting. Hawke's performance is mature and compelling, a portrait of suppressed turmoil that occasionally bursts into heated expression. Like Travis Bickle (the taxi-driving protagonist of Schrader's 1976 classic screenplay) before him, Rev. Toller is on a scary trajectory. Meanwhile Seyfried brings warmth to the movie's cold world, comedian Cedric the Entertainer convinces as the reverend's weary mentor, and Philip Ettinger plumbs depths of despair as Michael. Schrader has immaculate control of it all, steering his fiercely provocative tale to a conclusion that will linger long in the memory.
First Reformed is far from comfortable viewing, but the film exerts a strange hold from its earliest scenes that builds into something quite astonishing. It tackles global concerns of environmentalism, corporate greed and extremism, but filters them through one man's existential crisis and his efforts to locate hope in despair. It's also character-based storytelling from a master - one who's back at the height of his powers.