The term “career best performance” is one I am not fond of. How do we know it is the best performance of a career, provided they will be in more films in the future? Also, any audience member (critic or not) will not be able to see every film a certain actor (or actress) has starred in.
That all being said, it is hard to argue with those who have said that Ethan Hawke gives the best performance of his career in First Reformed. Even if the Oscars don’t come calling, it does not take away how authentic and down right brilliant he is. He stars as Ernst Toller, a minister at the First Reformed Church in present New York. The normal daily routine for Toller consists of reporting to his supervisors, waiting on the organ to be fixed, and taking care of the plumbing. He fails to see that he is also having a moderate drinking problem. His narration is from a journal he has decided to keep doing daily for a full year.
One day, he is visited by a member of the flock, Mary (Amanda Seyfried). Her Husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) is a form of environmentalist (as is Mary), but also suffers from depression, and he seeks out the Minister after Mary becomes pregnant. His beliefs do become somewhat of an interest to Toller.
The movie is much more than just what happens to characters we meet: It revolves mainly on Toller’s own faith in God as well as humanity. Director/Writer Paul Schrader (who penned Scorsese classics Taxi Driver and Raging Bull) gives us still shots with little to no movement (reminding me of that great Japenese master Ozu) yet still allows the story to boil with electricity.
As stated before, the performance by Hawke cannot be understated enough. He gives this character as much depth as any I have seen in a film this year. Consider the scene he has with Esther (Victoria Hill), a co-worker who it is hinted that Toller has had a history with before. This scene happens later in the film, and is the one where Toller completely draws the line. You will know it when you see it, and it is the one that would most likely be playing come Oscar night should Hawke get the (much deserved) nomination.
Parents, the film is not for kids. Though it is not a hard R, it does have some good amount of swearing and violence. The subject matter would be far too intense for anyone younger than High School age.
The movie does has flaws (though rather suspenseful, the last two minutes or so disappointed me a little). There is also a possibility that some may be turned off by the politics mentioned in the film. Thankfully, regardless of your beliefs, the performance by Ethan Hawke will appeal to anyone who likes cinematic acting.
Overall: Four Stars ****