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Movie review: Ethan Hawke smolders in riveting 'First Reformed'

Drama marks the long awaited return to form of American master Paul Schrader

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

It's been a long journey for Paul Schrader, the screenwriter who gave us American classics such as "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and "American Gigolo." In recent years, the Grand Rapids-born filmmaker also delivered a string of not-so-classics such as the tawdry and embarrassing Lindsay Lohan vehicle "The Canyons" and the Nic Cage clunker "Dog Eat Dog," both of which he directed. It was fair to think Schrader's best work was far in the rearview, and he would ride off as a once-vital talent who faded into the sunset.

Ethan Hawke in a scene from "First Reformed."

Now comes "First Reformed," which Schrader wrote and directed, and it shows a raging fire still burns deep within the 71-year-old. "First Reformed" is a passionate, unnerving and almost unbearably tense drama about faith, conviction and the rotting core of life on our planet. It's the Schrader many hoped was still alive and kicking but doubted we would ever see again. What a comeback. 

Ethan Hawke, in what could be his defining role (somebody please get this man an Oscar!), plays Toller, a former military chaplain who runs the First Reformed Church, the oldest church in Albany County, New York. The church is mostly a relic, a monument to the past, respected in the community but pish-poshed as a "souvenir shop" by the locals. Most of the town attends the glitzy megachurch across the street, run by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer, billed by his birth name, Cedric Kyles, in a rare straight role). But with First Reformed's 250th anniversary on the horizon, Toller will preside over its splashy reconsecration ceremony.

Toller is keeping a longhand journal to chronicle his thoughts for one full year. It's a journey of self-reflection, of opening up and giving himself a cold, uncompromising look in the mirror, embracing his past and what it portends for the future. We learn he was father to a son who died in combat in Iraq. Now Toller drinks whiskey for breakfast, which he chases with heavy helpings of Pepto Bismol.

Toller is introduced to the pregnant Mary (Amanda Seyfried, who is magnificent), who wants him to sit down with her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael is having doubts about impending fatherhood, tied to his radical environmentalist views and his fears of bringing up a child given the state of the world today. Toller attempts to set him straight, but it's evident he has his own fears and lacks conviction in his message. 

Belief, doubt, hope, fear, greed, mercy, activism: Schrader takes these elements and creates a stirring, caustic drama whose tension is stoked by an ominous score built on rumbling waves of bass. The film is framed in a tight, square-boxed aspect ratio that gives it a feeling of rare intimacy, and it is spartan in the efficiency of its details. Nothing is introduced that shouldn't be there.

Hawke, at 47 still finding new depths to explore in his characters, does astonishing work, baring the wounded, conflicted soul of his man of faith. He and Schrader are a remarkable duo. "First Reformed" takes some wild, unexpected and uncomfortable turns in its final act that will surely shock some, anger others and disturb just about everyone. For Schrader, it shows that he's still got it. Welcome back.

(313) 222-2284

'First Reformed'


Rated R for some disturbing violent images

Running time: 113 minutes