There is an obvious way to describe First Reformed, obvious enough that I suspect it's already been used many times. I think I saw it first from Mick LaSalle ... heck, I'll just quote him: "If you know Ingmar Bergman, it has a story something like 'Winter Light,' at least in the beginning, and then some things happen, and the film becomes like Bergman as imagined by the guy who wrote 'Taxi Driver' and 'Raging Bull' and who wrote and directed 'Hard Core.'" It's the Taxi Driver idea I'm talking about ... imagine Travis Bickle as a Protestant minister.
Winter Light is a movie about a pastor having an existential crisis. First Reformed is a movie about a minister having an existential crisis. Writer-director Paul Schrader was raised in a strict religious household ... it is said he never saw a movie until he was 17. He began working as a film critic in the early-70s, then moved to writing for the screen, eventually adding director to his resume. Given his background and his subsequent filmography, it is no surprise that First Reformed addresses a man questioning his faith. What is canny is the way the film sneaks into another mode, so gradually that you don't realize it right away.
Ethan Hawke is the minister, Reverend Toller. Hawke was active in his church as a teen, but I'm not sure I'd project that into his character here. He is effective as an actor, although his character is something less than effective. Even as he is asked for help, we know via voice overs that he doesn't think he is doing any good, nor does he think he's being honest. When he is confronted with the crises in his own small parish, he is just as likely to identify with the person's suffering as to provide any useful help. Hawke plays this quietly, which allows the despair to show through his face.
At one point in Taxi Driver, Travis Bickle says, "I'm God's lonely man." Reverend Toller feels the same, but his relationship to God is different than is Travis'. You might say God is the Reverend's employer, and Toller isn't sure any longer what he is supposed to do in his job. He is fighting the black pit that surrounds the death of his son in Afghanistan, and is ready for one more push to send him into Travis Land. But again, you aren't really aware of this at first. I'm reminded of the first time I saw Taxi Driver. I was in a bad place personally, and I identified with Travis so much that I didn't realize how disturbed he was until late in the film, when he shaves his hair into a mohawk. I saw it a few days later, and it was clear to me from the start that this man had serious problems, much more serious than my own. But that first time, the reality of his life wasn't immediately apparent to me. The same thing happens in First Reformed. If I watched it again, I'd see the signs of Reverend Toller's dilemma, but the first time through, if anything I identified with him.
There is other fine acting in the film besides Hawke's, although his character dominates the movie. Cedric the Entertainer, going by his real name of Cedric Kyles, gives little hint of the humor in his standup work ... he makes a believable pastor. Michael Gaston is creepy, as he so often is. Amanda Seyfried didn't make much of an impression on me, which may have been the way the character was written. And Michael Ettinger, unknown to me, stands out in a small but significant role that features one long scene with Hawke that is the core of the movie.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention one "supernatural" scene that is believably beautiful. You'll know it when you see it.
This may be the best film Paul Schrader has ever directed, which isn't common for a director in his 70s. It stands on its own, but if you haven't seen it, you'll want to watch Taxi Driver as well. Even Winter Light.
God's lonely man. Like Travis, Reverend Toller keeps a diary. As did Arthur Bremer.
And Winter Light: