Ethan Hawke in First Reformed (Photo: A24)

★★★½ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Paul Schrader
STARS Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried

Like Martin Scorsese with religion and Clint Eastwood with gun culture, Paul Schrader has spent a huge chuck of his career as writer and/or director examining the omniscient specter of violence — how it’s triggered, how it manifests itself, and how it’s ultimately settled. It would be facile to say he has finally found his definitive answer in First Reformed, but it might be accurate to state that the writer of Taxi Driver, Hardcore and Light Sleeper has added another puzzle piece that allows the image to come into sharper focus than before.

A haunting and meditative work that also centers on Schrader’s other topic of note — religion (no surprise from a man who was raised by strict Calvinists and not able to see a movie until he was 17) — First Reformed stars Ethan Hawke as Reverend Toller, a parish pastor living in upstate New York. Still feeling remorse over the fact that he urged his son to volunteer to fight in the Iraq war — a suggestion that led to his boy’s death — Toller divides his time between delivering sermons to his mostly empty church and hitting the bottle. But after one of his parishioners, the pregnant Mary (Amanda Seyfried), asks him to speak to her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist who might be harboring suicidal tendencies, Toller finds his sense of purpose renewed. But it also leads to a string of conflicts — with a church organization that is increasingly more devoted to profits than people, with a venal right-wing sponsor (Michael Gaston) who uses his philanthropy to mask his utter contempt for the earth and its inhabitants, and, most tellingly, with his own attitudes toward righteousness and redemption.

Like practically all of Schrader’s protagonists — even Jesus himself in the Scorsese-directed, Schrader-scripted The Last Temptation of Christ — Reverend Toller is a tortured individual whose ultimate reckoning must be through a trial of violence. Yet one of the most intriguing aspects about First Reformed is its inexorable march toward a climax that seems preordained. Or is it? Without resorting to spoilers, suffice to note that the conclusion is one that’s open to interpretation and certain to invigorate and infuriate audience members in equal measure. If that appears to be a cop-out on Schrader’s part, it’s actually the proper denouement for a work as curious and challenging as this one.

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