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Review: First Reformed – “Paul Schrader has made one of the best films in his long career”

Hardly this year you’ll find a film that so eerily captures the anguished state of the human condition in these uncertain times we’re currently experiencing on a global scale. First Reformed not only does that but most importantly, it puts things in perspective. Despite not sugarcoating the apocalyptic feel of impending doom we’re all overwhelmed by the second we turn the news on, this incredible piece of filmmaking still manages to provide the comfort of a glimmer of hope, resulting in a cinematic experience which will haunt you for quite a while.

Brilliant filmmaker Paul Schrader has been handling controversial material since the dawn of his illustrious yet often underrated career, so it’s no surprise he’s hit the jackpot with this dark, philosophical drama starring an outstanding Ethan Hawke in a career’s best role. From writing films like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull for frequent collaborator Martin Scorsese to directing his own scripts like American Gigoló and Affliction, Schrader has always gifted us thought-provoking stories revolving around uncompromisingly raw and authentic characters.

This time the story follows Reverend Toller (Hawke), leader of the First Reformed Church’s small congregation in upstate New York, who receives a cry for help from Mary (Amanda Seyfried), the young wife of an environmental activist just released from prison (Philip Ettinger). The man is obsessed with the planet being doomed by man-made climate change and he’s spiralling into depression. Mary is particularly worried for her husband because she’s pregnant and he hopelessly doesn’t see a point for this child to be born.

Toller begins counselling the troubled young man and although it may initially seem like he’s just helping one of the sheep in his flock, the mission soon affects the pastor as it develops ramifications into his own dark past and the crisis of faith he’s experiencing on his own. First Reformed is one of those films crafted with peculiar stylistic choices to create a unique mood that needs to be experienced first hand and preferably on the silver screen. It doesn’t heavily rely on plot and that’s why it’s best to not delve into the story any further.

One of the masters of American cinema, Paul Schrader may have had an uneven career but one could never fault him for trying his best to deliver compelling narratives that explore the deepest and darkest depths of the human condition. With his latest creation, the legendary filmmaker has also made one of the best films in his long-spanning career, which hopefully will finally get some recognition at the Oscars.

Ethan Hawke is magnificent in the controversial and multifaceted lead role, which is sure to make your head explode before the screen fades to black. He embraces this character with such believable pathos, carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders that you can’t help but root for him, for better or for worse. The supporting cast is also amazing and Amanda Seyfried continues to cement her interesting career with subdued and nuanced roles.

Schrader is a master at creating atmosphere and the film’s cinematography and production design vividly transport us into a world that sadly is not difficult to relate to. The auteur’s greatest merit is to approach this morality tale and its delicate subjects of faith, religion and overall spirituality with an objective eye. In doing so he delivers a film, which will stir your emotional core and make you gasp for air as it finally reaches the sweet relief of its climax.

First Reformed is out in UK cinemas now.

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