First Reformed, a mesmerizingly austere drama of one man’s apocalyptic crisis of faith, feels like the movie Paul Schrader was put on this planet to make. As a tense study in spiritual pain and its ultimate release, this handsome production is of a piece with Schrader’s most famous screenplays, including Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ, films that also anticipate this portrait of self-inquiry taken to its most obsessive and outlandish extremes. At once ruminative and shocking, godwardly inclined and repellently graphic, First Reformed is indisputably the finest film Schrader has directed since his sensitive adaptation of Russell Banks’s novel Affliction […].
This muted, meditative character study stars Ethan Hawke as Ernst Toller, the pastor of a tiny church in Upstate New York […]. In its quiet, carefully observed opening moments, First Reformed sets the tone for what is to come: This will be a film about discernment, a listening for God’s call that can either result in ecstatic awakening or abysmal despair. […] Hawke aptly embodies the latter, as Toller is revealed to be a man grappling with doubt, hopelessness and a crushing sense of guilt.
Hawke, who has been doing so much praiseworthy work in recent years in such films as Boyhood [HIFF 2014], Born to be Blue and Maudie [HIFF 207], here collaborates seamlessly with writer-director Schrader, who creates still, squared-off frames in which Toller’s conversations can be appreciated in all their highly charged glory.
Anne Hornaday, The Washington Post