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First Reformed review - Ethan Hawke excels in quiet, intense character study

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Verditct: a haunting, intense film that's well worth a watch.

The latest from writer-director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, American Gigolo), First Reformed is a powerful, contemplative character study anchored by a terrific central performance from Ethan Hawke as a troubled priest.

Reverend Toller (Hawke) is a solitary Pastor at a small tourist church on the eve of its 250th anniversary. Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks him to counsel her husband, a depressed environmentalist - this sends Toller spiralling towards a personal crisis of faith as he grapples with the torments of the past and his despair of the future. 

A story of quiet, deliberate introspection in the face of mounting despair and uncertainty, First Reformed slowly draws you in and builds up to a harrowing conclusion. Off the top of my head, the only two other movies that have made this anxious are Eye in the Sky and A Quiet Place - but more on that later.

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Ethan Hawke is superb here. Much of Reverend Toller's thoughts are conveyed through voice-over narration, which is pulled from a journal he keeps. Hawke's voice is soothing and urgent in equal measure. His performance is understated, perfectly conveying the burden on Toller's mind through subtle little touches.

Make no mistake, First Reformed is a bleak film. It takes a meticulously minimalist approach to its pacing and cinematography which pairs well with the sombre tone. Visually striking in a cold kind of way.

Mary's husband gets Toller to delve deeper into climate change research. Concerns over the future of our plan exacerbate his mounting dread and uncertainty - add health problems, a dark past, and guilt over a recent tragedy and you have a recipe for a deeply troubled man. 

Not to mention the anniversary of the church hanging over his head, as Toller is expected to lead the service. The event, along with the church itself, is sponsored by an industrialist whose company has a well known track record of polluting the environment. As you might imagine, this doesn't sit well with Toller at all. 

First Reformed is mainly Hawke's show, but it does boast a well-rounded supporting cast. Most notable among them is Seyfied as the pregnant Mary who slowly bonds with Toller, and Cedric Kyles as the Pastor of the Abundant Life megachurch, a benefactor.

The movie won me over fairly early on, as the very first meeting between Toller and Mary's husband is a fascinating conversation that grapples with profound questions of faith and science, even addressing difficult topics such as abortion with care and thoughtfulness. 

First Reformed's harrowing final sequence will have you squirming in your seat, as everything piled up on Toller's plate finally makes him lash out. At the same time, it also marks the movie's only significant misstep.

While the final stretch is hauntingly intense, the ending itself is all too abrupt and unsatisfactory. It's an unexpected cut to black so sudden and absolute that at first, I honestly thought there was some sort of problem with the projector. 

It's a disappointing way to end an otherwise engaging, thought-provoking slow-burn drama. It's still well worth a watch and I wouldn't be at all surprised if Ethan Hawke's performance makes some waves come award season.

First Reformed arrives in UK cinemas on July 13th.


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