Paul Schrader, as he has discussed many times in interviews, was raised in the Calvinist Christian Reformed Church and didn’t see a movie until he was 17 years old. Many of his signature films, as either a screenwriter or writer-director (most conspicuously “Taxi Driver,” Raging Bull,” and “The Last Temptation of Christ,” all directed by Martin Scorsese), involve the agonies of faith and redemption, often culminating in an act of violence that is meant to be as spiritually cleansing as it is shocking.
“First Reformed,” which Schrader wrote and directed, is about Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke, in a strong, spooked performance), a priest in a small Dutch Reformed parish in upstate New York who looks upon severe man-made climate change as the End of Days and slides into ecoterrorism. Schrader’s chief influence here, as in many of his other films, is the great French director Robert Bresson, especially his “Diary of a Country Priest.” But Bresson’s spare stylistics achieved a sublimity while Schrader’s, though intermittently powerful, too often feel schematic.
Rated R for some disturbing violent images.