- 23 Jul 18
Philosophy and political rage combine in masterful drama.
It’s almost impossible to watch Paul Schrader’s austere and ruminative drama and not compare it to Darren Aronofsky’s audacious, anarchic feverdream mother! The two films could not be more different in tone and execution, but both are preoccupied with the relationship between flesh and spirit, earth and heaven, desire and conscience – and cinephiles who found mother! too bonkers to bother examining may find it easier to connect with this ambitious and affecting film.
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.