The adjective that recommends itself above all others in connection to First Reformed is "unrelenting." You might, if you have absolutely no idea how cinema works as a medium, be able to avoid figuring out precisely what writer-director Paul Schrader wants you to think about the world, industrialisation, religion in 21st Century America, and despair; but I think it's even more likely that if you were such a perfect naïve viewer, First Reformed is still so heavily insistent that you would, on the spot, learn how to read a movie.

I mean none of this in a bad way. Part of the story First Reformed tells is of the feeling that things are so obviously so bad that it's impossible to ignore or escape or even find respite, and it makes sense for such a film to have a completely suffocating aesthetic and overall tone. It opens on a shot of its titular location, a small pre-Revolutionary church in upstate New York that has largely become an architectural tourist destination here in the Year of Our Lord 2017, with Alexander Dynan's camera squatting almost all the way to the ground pointing slightly up, so the church looms up, mildly distorted by a wide angle lens to seem even more hulking and forbidding. To say nothing of the dramatic, gloomy skies forming a backdrop. On top of which, it's framed (as is the whole film) in the boxy 1.37:1 aspect of classic cinema, which here has less to do with classicism than suffocating claustrophobia. From that point on, there's no real question where this is going, even beyond the fact that we presumably knew we were getting a Paul Schrader film before we started: this is a movie about the death of religion and a desperate priest, convinced of his own profound unworthiness, attempting to find some scrap of meaning in a corporatised world that has worked above all to destroy the possibility for real meaning.

Our protagonist is Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), whose son died in Iraq (the film's internal chronology doesn't scan, so just pretend), and has since then treated the First Reformed the way a medieval monk would have treated a remote monastery, as a chance to abandon the world and punish himself. In the early scenes, Toller has decided to keep a private journal for one year, into which he will pour all of his doubts and torments, burning it as a symbolic act of expiation. Meanwhile, he has to put on the least-convincing possible brave face as the church prepares to celebrate its 250th anniversary, with the big corporate religious conglomerate that now runs it preparing festivities that Toller is wholly unequipped to deal with. As all this swirls around, Toller is given a chance to prove himself: the very pregnant Mary (Amanda Seyfried) is concerned that her unemployed husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) has gone to some dark emotional place, and has begged the reverend to intervene. When talking to Michael, Toller finds that the young man has been infected by a sense of profound despair over the collapse of the planet's ecosystem, and the thought of bringing a child into a world that seems to be headed inexorably towards its own physical destruction. Toller is able to mumble some platitudes, and is far more affected by Michael's fears than his meager optimism is able to help.

What we have so far - about halfway through the film - is the world's most transparent hybrid of Robert Bresson's ultra-Catholic Diary of a Catholic Priest and Ingmar Bergman's ultra-Lutheran Winter Light, as filtered through the most Calvinist of all film directors. And First Reformed is, make absolutely no mistake, a deeply Calvinist film. The Reformed Church is itself Calvinist, which is an obvious tell, but the film's immediate agreement with Toller and Michael that yep, things are getting worse and we're doomed is fatalistic in a way that even Bergman's nihilistic fable of a priest incapable of dealing with life during the Nuclear Age wouldn't have dared to be. Toller is an extraordinary character, and Hawke is superb in the role (it is by far the best he's ever been in a film that wasn't directed by Richard Linklater): a man of 17th Century religious asceticism desperately seeking for some way to purify himself of sin and make peace with God in the face of a 21st Century culture that has largely done way with the idea of sin and penance in the first place. Hawke's whispered, strangled line deliveries are magnificently bleak, as is his constant expression of a wholly consuming fear and confusion, looking not so much like he's always about to cry as that he's always so despondent that he can't even cry. It is one of the great screen portrayals of spiritual crisis in many, many years - though spiritual crisis hasn't been much of a topic for movies lately, so there's not much competition. That fact itself helps give First Reformed much of its kick: Toller is aware he is a man in the wrong time, and we're sort of aware that the film itself, with its Academy ratio and incredibly serious consideration of the tension between personal behavior, religious piety, and political activism, is a film several decades out of time as well. It's a '60s European art film that has somehow manifested as a 2010s American indie movie, the kind of movie that only a very grave cinephile of a certain age would ever have conceived of, or convinced somebody else to finance.

It's not as heavy as I'm making it sound - though it's still pretty damn heavy - thanks in part to the way that Schrader ties this all to a thriller framework: it's not at all dissimilar from his similar attempt to use a genre movie as a way of dissecting a religious man's internal crisis with 2005's more-interesting-than-it-should-be Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist. It's not nearly as much of a thriller as the trailer, or many reviews, make it out to be; those elements are more of an illusion, an opportunity for Toller to play-act at morally purging himself. Still, it makes the thing go down easier than a Bergman or Bresson picture, as does the turn towards the flagrantly mystic and metaphorical near the end. There's also that beautifully square cinematography, laden with dark browns and greys, that makes the despair more emotional than intellectual, which somehow makes the film more "fun" to watch. It's a gripping, at times shocking film, though mostly for reasons that would be unconscionable spoilers. Even more, though, it's a tremendous character study, and a severe depiction of how guilt and the desire to punish oneself manifest in the absence of the Old Time Religion whose trappings are all over the film, in the conspicuous absence of its substance. Bleak stuff, and about as subtle as a rock to the head, but I could barely blink while I was watching it, and I have a very good feeling that this is going to stick in my mind for years, gnawing and nagging.