Paul Schrader's First Reformed comes freighted with expectations. At last, one of the living American greats has returned to dissect The Ways We're Going Mad Today, in a preacher drama so rigorously hair-shirted that you might guess ahead of time that it's shot in the boxy, old-fashioned Academy ratio. That asceticism is thematic: Our preacher, Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is boxed in, you see, so it's only polite for viewers to meet him halfway by denying themselves the full use of our screens.
Schrader quickly catches Toller up in the colloquy of a lifetime, one that likely will seize and shake the souls of sympathetic viewers. Toller is invited by the portentously named Mary (Amanda Seyfried), a pregnant parishioner, to meet with her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist in the grip of despair. His question: What right do he and Mary have to bring a child into a world that, according even to conservative forecast models, will soon be ravaged by climate change?
Their discussion is electric. Schrader specializes in men whose minds get brought to a terrible boil by the world gone wrong around them, and the final scenes are shocking. But I found them dutifully so, an answer to the problem of how to end a Paul Schrader movie rather than how to live with knowledge that we're killing life itself. But I fully lost myself in sequences of Toller trying to honor his understanding of Christ's teachings with the fallen reality in which he's trapped. In First Reformed, Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson meet outraged editorial cartooning meet the it-always-builds-to-violence pulp sensibility of the movie brats. The mix is volatile, enraging, entrancing.