- 23 Jul 18
Ethan Hawke stars as Reverend Ernst Toller, a parish pastor at a Dutch Reform Church in upstate New York whose congregation is ebbing away – along with Toller’s passion. He’s sick, drinking too much, and plagued with guilt. Once married, his son died in Iraq after Toller pressured him to enlist. And now Toller sits in a parish that was once a stop on the Underground Railroad and now sells souvenir hats. Nihilism is thick in the air.
When a pregnant parishioner Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks Toller to speak with her depressed husband Michael (Philip Ettinger), Toller’s crisis becomes explosive. In still, uncannily direct, squared off frames, Schrader portrays Toller and Michael’s conversations as a heart-stopping, high-stakes game of intellectual and spiritual tennis – but Toller may not be as good at swatting away Michael’s despair as he pretends. It’s clear that a reckoning of some sort is coming, but what form will it take, and how extreme will it be?
Hawke’s performance is compelling, conveying both the calm, compassionate demeanour his vocation demands, while his anger and bitterness emerges in the private sanctum of his home and his journals. His agonised intensity is echoed in Schrader’s visuals, which are cold, slow and imposing, interrupted by one surreal scene which captures the hope of a utopia, as seen from a Godlike perspective. Masterful.