“Can God forgive us?”
Once that line is uttered by Michael (Philip Ettinger), a radical environmental activist and soon-to-be father, it gets in Reverend Toller’s (Ethan Hawke) head. He agonizes over the question as his outlook on salvation begins to shift, his faith is tested, and a tormented past rises up to haunt him once again.
Toller is a solitary man at a small Dutch Reform church in upstate New York. He leads tours of the historic chapel when visitors happen to show up, and he’s bothered by a dwindling congregation that is being gobbled up by the slick mega-church down the street. When he strikes up a friendship with Michael’s pregnant wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried), he comes face-to-face with the very real possibility that they (and we) have no future.
Paul Schrader, who wrote and directed the film, is methodical in his storytelling and direction. The film is shot in a square 4:3 aspect ratio which effectively boxes in the lonely Reverend as he goes about his mundane routines, from writing in his daily journal to emptying his third bottle of whiskey in as many hours.
Hawke’s performance, easily one of the very best of his career, is effectively restrained and structured. He adds sensitivity and near-horrifying suspense to a character who contemplates turning to violence as a way to seek redemption. His faith is tested to the point he not only spirals into a pattern of self-destruction, but begins to have menacing thoughts of harming others.
There’s a disturbing agony to the despair Reverend Toller is feeling as he becomes rattled by doubt. The film raises questions both philosophical and theological, and offers a bleak look at spiritual (and physical) deterioration. Parts of the pessimistic-yet-hopeful drama feel deliberately ambiguous, blurring the lines fantasy and reality that ultimately lead to an ending that will likely be the most divisive of the year.
This provocative film is surprising and intense, one that’s destined to spark controversy from both devout and secular audiences. Schrader criticizes everything from religious commercialization to eco-terrorism, and he does it in often brilliant ways. The parallels of the destructive natures of polluters are likened to organized religion, as the poison is nearly one and the same. One may be destroying our planet, but the other could be destroying our souls.