Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke, in one of his best performances) is having a crisis of faith. The parish pastor of New York’s 250-year-old First Reformed church—once a stopover on the Underground Railroad, now jokingly called a gift shop—watches with detachment as his flock dwindles and his connection to the younger generation evaporates. He has nothing but contempt for those in power. He drinks too much and eats too little. Prayer is all but impossible, and salvation is a dirty word; to use Kierkegaard’s words, Toller suffers from the sickness unto death.

Looking for answers to questions not yet asked, Toller sets to keeping a journal. For one year, he will track his thoughts, refusing to censor himself and lay his soul bare. For a few months—mostly the winter of his discontent—we follow him. From his half-hearted sermons to a congress small enough to count on one hand to his interactions with the youth groups at Abundant Life, the nearby megachurch that subsidizes First Reformed. Though Abundant Life is as warm as First Reformed is cold, Toller finds no solace there, just easy answers to difficult questions.

Then one day, a pregnant parishioner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried), asks Toller to speak with her husband, Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael is despondent, and Mary fears he will lash out violently.

What has driven Michael to this state? Global warming. With temperature graphs, ocean-level charts, and pictures of environmental atrocities splayed across his office, Michael has a full-blown fixation. Toller tries but cannot reach him; he’s too far gone. But Michael can reach Toller, and without warning, Toller finds himself with a new cause and a new charge. As he writes in his diary, “I have found a new form of prayer.”

Writer/director Paul Schrader frequently returns to Toller and his diary. It is a reference to Diary of a Country Priest and Pickpocket, two films by French director Robert Bresson, one of Schrader’s heroes. Before he was a filmmaker, Schrader penned Transcendental Style in Film, a study of Bresson, Carl Theodor Dreyer, and Yasujirô Ozu’s filmmaking. The book itself is a masterpiece, and 46 years later, Schrader has put this study into practice and crafted First Reformed, his best film in years; maybe the best of his career.

Readers of Transcendental Style and students of European cinema will quickly identify the sources from which Schrader draws. Toller and the Priest of Ambricourt in Diary are cut from the same cloth; Michael’s despair mirrors Max von Sydow in Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light. A scene halfway through the movie screams Andrei Tarkovsky while the final seconds are infused with Dreyer’s Ordet.

But First Reformed is much more than a bunch of cobbled-together films; this is Schrader through and through, making the reference points come together and work harmoniously. The result is a profoundly thoughtful and urgent piece of work. You don’t have to be a believer nor a cinephile to access the world of First Reformed, but when the credits roll and the lights come up, you might be both.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

First Reformed (2017)
Written and directed by Paul Schrader
Produced by Jack Binder, Greg Clark, Gary Hamilton, Victoria Hill, David Hinojosa, Frank Murray, Deepak Sikka, Christine Vachon
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Antonio Kyles, Victoria Hill, Philip Ettinger
A24, Rated R, Running time 113 minutes, Premiered Aug. 31, 2017 at the Venice Film Festival.

The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 25, No. 42, “When I paint my masterpiece.