Ethan Hawke stars as a former military chaplain, Toller, who can’t get over the death of his son. When he meets a radical environmental activist, Michael (Philip Ettinger), he doubts both his faith and his purpose in life. After Michael’s suicide, Toller finds a connection with Michael’s young widow, Mary, played by Amanda Seyfried.
Alex Arabian, Film Inquiry: “Toller puts on a brave front, but still suffers from his son’s death, so he drinks heavily. However, this is ill-advised, as he suffers from some form of advanced cancer. He decides to write longhand in a diary for a year.”
More about Toller’s character from director Schrader himself:
This guy has a sickness that Kierkegaard called a sickness unto death — a lack of hope, despair, angst. This sickness has manifestations. The cloth of the clergy is one, the diary is another, the alcohol is another, and finally the environment is a manifestation of his soul sickness. So he grafts this cause onto himself — in fact, picks it up as a kind of virus from another person. But if it weren’t the environment, it would be something else.
About Toller’s emerging “environmentalist obsessions” Greg Cwik (Slant) notes, “It’s as if the dead man has been reborn within Toller, as if Toller has found a new, invigorated faith, a fervid and politicized one. Suicide is, for strict Augustine Christians, a sin, unforgivable as the dead cannot confess, unless one is labeled a martyr, like Samson. Yet Toller begins to see in death the possibility for new life.”
See the trailer below:
Eric Kohn, Indiewire: “As a priest who may or may not be losing his mind, Hawke provides a compelling anchor for Schrader’s surprisingly effective religious-themed film.”
Justin Chang, NPR: “First Reformed is a stunner, a spiritually probing work of art with the soul of a thriller, realized with a level of formal control and fierce moral anger that we seldom see in American movies.”
Lindsey Bahr, Associated Press: “‘First Reformed’ is the kind of film that will stay with you long after the credits.”
David Sims, The Atlantic: “An embittered look at our world through the eyes of someone who’s increasingly horrified to be a part of it, and a film that’s one of the most searing experiences of the year.”
Stephanie Zacharek, Time:
Part of the movie’s understated triumph lies in its casting: Hawke is an actor who clearly cares, and worries, a lot–the tree of life is practically etched into his forehead. As the hyperconscientious Toller, he conveys both the selfishness and the true anguish of people who just can’t let go of their own pain. But he also offers a shred of hope in the idea that in the end, caring too much might be just the thing that saves us.