First Reformed review: Ethan Hawke's addictively weird thriller has a darkness that clings to the skin

Dir: Paul Schrader; Starring: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer, Victoria Hill, Philip Ettinger, Michael Gaston. 15 cert, 115 mins.

“God is not a torturer,” the sickly young Curé advised in Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. “He only wants us to be merciful with ourselves.” Perhaps someone should leave a copy of the DVD in Ernst Toller’s collection plate. 

Superbly played by Ethan Hawke in a kind of ecstasy of misery, the Reverend Toller is a holy loner in the Bressonian mould. He is also the antihero of this ferocious spiritual thriller from Paul Schrader, the writer of Taxi Driver writer and director of American Gigolo. It’s Schrader’s best film in decades, and recaptures the chilling end-times desolation of his finest work.

Toller keeps his apocalyptic side in check with whisky and reflection, scratching out his thoughts in longhand in a diary by night. His base of operations is the First Reformed Church in Snowbridge, upstate New York – a sparsely attended 18th-century box of white wood with a thin spire pointed accusatorially heavenwards, hemmed in by grey skies and spidery trees.

An ex-military type shouldering a horrible burden of grief from his past, Toller is less a spiritual advisor than a glorified janitor and tour guide. A typical day involves fixing a leak in the bathroom then showing some visitors around, making sure to lead them out past the souvenir stand.