If you weren’t already aware that First Reformed is the latest production by A24, there’s enough of the rising star label’s signature sense of dread, ominous tone and colour palette for it to spark a light of sense when it’s pointed out. Paul Schrader’s first writer-directorial effort since 2014’s lacklustre Dying of the Light, the A24 sensibility quickly comes to suit the old school director within – returning us not to his gloriously sleazy eighties heyday, but still dropping us into the quality pool at some point before the turn of the century.
While Hereditary quickly solidified itself as the label’s signature edition or showreel piece, First Reformed shoots for a character drama with all the atmospheric trappings of micro-budget arthouse horror all the same. The result a graceful and measured effort from Schrader, a captivating production bearing the full weight of Ethan Hawke unleashing every nuanced muscle he can find in his toolbox.
Hawke takes centre stage as Reverend Ernst Toller, whose role within his upstate New York community brings troubled young woman Mary (Amanda Seyfried) to his door, and with her an existential crisis that will leave him spiralling in a way from which he might never recover. It’s a bold and big character swing on Schrader’s part, and certainly an ambitious one considering Dying of the Light’s lack of success in dealing with its own attempt. Here though the results bear infinitely more fruit, with Hawke striving to show us every hairline crack forming in his otherwise collected visage until the mounting pressure is visually remarkable.
The supporting cast, meanwhile, do solid jobs with solid supporting roles – the sad fact of First Reformed being Hawke’s show being that, by nature, no one’s particularly allowed much room to shine, save really for Amanda Seyfried. What’s there though fleshes out Ernst’s world rather effectively, and, with Schrader in what proves to be a rather fitting wheelhouse, there’s at least two cult fanbases who should give it the try. First Reformed’s an impressive picture, but not, by any measure, a crowdpleasing one. With a sharp and insightful script unafraid to go to truly dark places though, it’s a film of heft and character, with Schrader and Hawke more than up to delivering both.
First Reformed is in cinemas nationwide from Friday, July 13th; rated 15. Check out the trailer below.