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Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” hearkens back to “Taxi Driver”

Updated: Sep 12, 2018


Ethan Hawke stars as Ernst Toller, a minister in a sparsely attended historic landmark church in upstate New York. (4K frame shots courtesy of Lionsgate Home Entertainment)


4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital copy; 2017; R for disturbing violent images; streaming via Amazon Video, FandangoNOW, Google Play, iTunes (4K, Dolby Vision), Vudu, YouTube

Best extra: Commentary by writer/director Paul Schrader

PAUL SCHRADER’S career, both in screenwriting and directing, has been stellar and varied. It dates back to the mid-1970s when his screenplay for “Taxi Driver” opened Hollywood doors for him. Before that, he wrote a book called “Transcendental Style in Film,” about spirituality in the cinema.

With his latest, and many critics are saying his greatest film, Schrader draws from both those early projects and also from Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson, a Polish film called “Ida,” as well as his own upbringing in the austere Calvinist religion.

First Reformed Church of Snowbridge, New York.

Long and lingering camera shots reminiscent of classic European filmmaking dominate "First Reformed."

Toller's journal

“First Reformed” stars Ethan Hawke as Ernst Toller, a minister in a sparsely attended historic landmark church in upstate New York. As the film opens, Toller has begun writing in a journal, the words of which become a running narrative. We soon learn that he endured a tragic past and has what appears to be a serious illness. Meanwhile, he’s reluctantly planning a 250th-anniversary celebration of his church, which is considered a sort of tourist attraction for the modern mega-church that owns it.

A distraught young pregnant woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) comes to Toller, asking him to counsel her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), who wants her to abort the baby. Michael is part of a radical environmental group and shares with Toller images and statistics proving the world is heading to an eco-apocalypse and is no place to bring new life. The shocking outcome of this situation proves to be a turning point for Toller, who adopts Michael’s preoccupation with pollution and global warming.

As the story progresses, Toller and Mary become closer sparking two mysteriously surreal scenes. Viewers are left to decide whether these events happened or not. This unique film, enhanced by a superb, shattering performance by Hawke; a wonderful turn by Cedric (“The Entertainer”) Kyles, as the pastor of the megachurch; and a masterfully restrained touch by Schrader and cinematographer Alexander Dynan, is sure to inspire hours of discussion. As with any true work of art, “First Reformed” will stay with viewers long after they see it.

Mary (Amanda Seyfried) comes to Rev. Toller, asking him to counsel her husband Michael.

The counseling session at the home of Michael and Mary.

A troubled man

Exceptional detail and HDR toning control the 4K version with a square 1.37:1 aspect ratio.


The Lionsgate 4K and Blu-ray transfers are excellent, given that “First Reformed” was shot in the square 1.37:1 aspect ratio from cinematographer Alexander Dynan, with an extremely muted color palette. Disappointing the 4K version with Dolby Vision HDR is only available on iTunes, an obvious push to move videophiles to digital streaming. The visuals on are a lot of unadorned, stark interiors, which clearly reflect the almost ascetic quality of Toller’s troubled life in the church. Details are very sharp, skin tones perfectly realistic, and depth of field satisfying. The 4K provides a more cinematic experience with an edge in clarity and deeper blacks, which dominate "First Reformed."


The DTS-HD Master Audio track is also fine, taking into consideration the modesty of the sound design. Adding to the environmental effects and spoken words, the score by Lustmord is minimalist, to say the least. Dialogue is extremely clear and always intelligible.

Cedric (“The Entertainer”) Kyles, plays Rev. Jeff Jeffers the pastor of Abundant Life.

Toller and Esther (Victoria Hill), the choir director at Abundant Life, who cares for him.

Toller stumbles upon a horrifying scene.


Include an informative making-of documentary and Schrader’s commentary, which is especially enlightening. The director says he had never thought he would make a “spiritual” film until he met Paweł Pawlikowski, the Polish director of “Ida,” about a young woman about to take her vows as a nun. Schrader declares that “First Reformed” is “bound together with the glue of ‘Taxi Driver,’” in that it revolves around “a man alone in his room,” writing in a voice-over diary. He says he doesn’t usually think of a specific actor when he writes a screenplay, but “two-thirds of the way through the script,” he pictured Hawke as Toller.

The actor, says Schrader, agreed to do the film within 24 hours of receiving it. Seyfried was actually pregnant during the shooting, which forced the producers to come up with financing sooner than they would otherwise have since she had to stop working on a specific date.

Schrader notes he used a “withholding technique” in the film, to let viewers know “things are not going to happen at the speed you expect.” Static shots of bare empty rooms often precede the appearance of an actor. The square format proscribed using over-the-shoulder shots in scenes of conversations. Instead, Schrader mostly put actors in the middle of the frame, but added, “One of the nice things about making rules is you get to be the first one to break them.”

Schrader criticized the way today’s moviegoers have been “conditioned to having everything done for them,” when they watch a film, as well as the quick cuts and fast pace of modern Hollywood movies. He prefers to leave room for questions, requiring his audiences to think, to contemplate: “You can’t have fast contemplation.”

— Peggy Earle and Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer

Everyone is waiting for Rev. Toller to start the 250th anniversary ceremony.




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