A bleak modern religious tale from the mind of Paul Schrader

As is customary, a studio representative stopped me after a press screening for Paul Schrader's “First Reformed” to get my immediate reaction.

“Feel-good hit of the summer,” I deadpanned.

One does not expect light summer fare from the man who wrote “Taxi Driver,” but “First Reformed” is first-rate filmmaking with a performance we will likely be talking about at the end of the year.

Toller (Ethan Hawke) is the pastor at the tiny First Reformed Church in the small town of Snowbridge, New York.

He gives tours of the historic church, but his weekly flock is miniscule, particularly compared to the town's megachurch, led by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, aka Cedric the Entertainer).

One member of his congregation, a pregnant young woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried), asks Toller to counsel her husband, whose obsession with irreversible environmental damage has led him to question bringing a child into this modern world.

Toller's own struggles are mostly internalized. He writes in a journal about his own dread. He drinks heavily, despite his flagging health.

Taking ample character and thematic inspiration from Ingmar Bergman's “Winter Light,” Schrader explores the backdrop of religion with expected cynicism.

Schrader was raised in a world of strict religion, and Toller represents a complex relationship between the mind and spirit. (Note: Among his collaborations with Martin Scorsese was Schrader's screenplay adaptation of “The Last Temptation of Christ.”)

Updating the nuclear fears of “Winter Light” to reflect climate change gives “First Reformed” a very modern sense of dread. As Toller does his own research, he finds himself asking if God can forgive us for what we've done to his creation.

Schrader directs in a pared-down style, right down to the film's aspect ratio. With minimal use of score or camera movement, he forces the audience to focus on the words and performances.

Hawke gives a performance worth focusing on, and it's perhaps the finest of his career. Toller is not a man merely losing his faith; he struggles with it. “You're always in the garden,” says Jeffers, referring to Christ's agony at the Garden of Gethsemane.

“First Reformed” slowly builds toward an inevitable conclusion, but Schrader confounds those expectations with an ending that will certainly leave you talking. This isn't easy fare, but it's wholly worthwhile.