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Movie review: This new flick gets right everything that 'Mother!' got wrong

By: Ann Hornaday The Washington Post
June 8, 2018 Updated: June 8, 2018 at 4:45 am
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Ethan Hawke in "First Reformed." MUST CREDIT: A24

Starring Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Philip Ettinger, Cedric the Entertainer; directed by Paul Schrader; 113 minutes; R for some disturbing violent images.

"First Reformed," an austere drama of one man's apocalyptic crisis of faith, feels like the movie Paul Schrader was put on this planet to make.

As a tense study in spiritual pain and its ultimate release, this handsome production is of a piece with Schrader's most famous screenplays, including "Taxi Driver" and "The Last Temptation of Christ," films that also anticipate this portrait of self-inquiry taken to its most obsessive and outlandish extremes.

This muted, meditative character study stars Ethan Hawke as Ernst Toller, the pastor of a tiny church in upstate New York whose vaunted place in Revolutionary and Civil War-era history has made it as much a tourist destination as a house of worship. In its quiet, carefully observed opening moments, "First Reformed" sets the tone for what is to come: This will be a film about discernment, a listening for God's call that can either result in ecstatic awakening or abysmal despair.

With his cragged forehead, rakelike frame and ascetic brush-cut, Hawke aptly embodies the latter, as Toller is revealed to be a man grappling with doubt, hopelessness and a crushing sense of guilt. When a young expectant mother named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks Toller to counsel her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger), the subsequent encounters will put Toller on a path of even more punishing self-examination.

Hawke collaborates seamlessly with Schrader, who creates still, squared frames in which Toller's conversations can be appreciated in all their highly charged glory. When Toller drops by for a heart-to-heart with Michael, what begins as a mild-mannered pastoral visit becomes a heart-stopping encounter.

The stakes are comparably high throughout "First Reformed," as Toller's rising sense of spiritual duty collides with a world bent on its own social and environmental destruction, as well as a Protestant hierarchy more interested in corporate survival and consumerist brand management than the simple, self-abnegating work of Jesus.

Toller is a loner restlessly searching for truth, moral reckoning and the salvation of a world mired in despondency and pitiless cruelty. Will he succumb to those anxieties or transcend them? Even when the lights come up on "First Reformed," filmgoers may sense that, like the lamp designed as an all-seeing eye that decorates Mary's living room, only Schrader knows the answer for sure, and he prefers to keep certain holy mysteries intact.

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