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First Reformed
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Ethan Hawke’s ‘First Reformed’ demands to be taken seriously

The first critical hit of this year’s Seattle International Film Festival, Ethan Hawke’s “First Reformed” gets a regular theatrical release Friday, June 1.

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It’s about as far away from your typical summer blockbuster fare as you can get. And although it won’t compete at the box-office, its reputation will probably outlast most of this summer’s releases.

Written and directed by the legendary Paul Schrader who penned the great “Taxi Driver,” “First Reformed” both echoes and expands on the 1970’s classic.

Hawke plays a middle-aged pastor of a First Reformed Church in upstate New York. He’s a tortured soul who finds himself unable to pray and so, turns to confessional writing as a kind of last resort.

“I’ve decided to keep a journal to set down all my thoughts and the simple events of my day. I will keep this diary for one year. At the end of that time, it will be destroyed.”

Hawke’s Reverend Toller is a mess. He’s in the midst of a downward spiral physically, psychologically, professionally, and spiritually.

He’s clearly unhealthy, with constant stomach pains and blood in his urine. He’s also battling guilt and grief over the death of his son in Iraq and the subsequent divorce from his wife. Giving up his job as a military chaplain, he now presides over a failing parish and has begun to question the value of his very vocation.

When a young pregnant parishioner asks him to intercede with her suicidal and radical environmentalist husband, Toller does his best but finds himself at a loss for words, or at least convincing words. (When confronted by the husband, “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?,” Toller can only respond with another question, “Who can know the mind of God?”)

Toller finds himself haunted by the husband’s ethical challenges and becomes more and more troubled by his church’s reliance on suspect corporate money.

A friendly pastor at a mega-church who underwrites most of Toller’s church expenses tries unconvincingly to talk him out of his earnest despair.

“Jesus doesn’t want our suffering. He suffered for us. He wants our commitment and our obedience.”

“And what of his creation? The heavens declare the glory of God. God is present everywhere in every plant, every river, every tiny insect. The whole world is a manifestation of his holy presence. I think this is an issue where the church can lead. But they say nothing.”

Toller’s dismay at and disgust with the world, his church, and himself leads him to consider drastic actions reminiscent of Travis Bickle’s in “Taxi Driver.” In some ways, Toller is a religious Travis Bickle whose final act is even more profound and confounding. It turns out writer/director Paul Schraeder is in a kind of call-and-response mode with his own 40-year-old creation.

“First Reformed” demands to be taken seriously, and even when it seems needlessly morose, it’s always compelling.

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