December 10, 2018 – A lonely, divorced minister with a post at a sparsely attended historic “tourist church” wrestles with despair and becomes radicalized in this well-acted art film from writer-director Paul Schrader (“The Walker”).
Ethan Hawke (“Maggie's Plan”) plays Reverend Ernst Toller. He is the minister of the historic Dutch Reformed Church, the First Reformed Church in Snowbridge, New York, which is about to celebrate its 250th anniversary. The church is owned by a megachurch, Abundant Life, headed up by popular minister Joel Jeffers (played by Cedric Antonio Kyles, AKA Cedric the Entertainer, of the “Barbershop” movies).
Toller lives the life of a monk when he is alone in his spare parsonage, with almost no furniture. He toils over a journal, as the film opens, intending to write his private thoughts in it for a year, then destroy it. He wrestles with his faith, his despair, declining health and alcoholism. He is afraid he has cancer, but is reluctant to see a doctor. We learn that his son, which he encouraged to join the military, was killed in a war. The death caused a strain on his marriage which ended in divorce.
We also learn that Toller had an affair with a woman who works for the Abundant Life church. She cares for Toller, but he wants nothing to do with her. For all that, Toller seems to be under control as the film opens. The movie does a nice job of detailing Toller's daily religious routine. Then he meets a young couple, Mary (Amanda Seyfried of “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again”) and Michael (Philip Ettinger of “The Pirates of Somalia”).
Mary is pregnant and wants to have the baby, but Michael, a radical environmentalist, is convinced the natural world is dying and wants Mary to have an abortion because of his despair. Toller debates Michael on the subject of being positive and fighting despair. He enjoys the debate and hopes that Michael was helped by his talk.
Later, he is contacted by Mary, who has discovered that Michael is making a suicide vest. Toller takes the vest and contacts Michael, who agrees to meet with Toller, but commits suicide before Toller gets there. In a letter Michael left to Toller, he specifies the kind of memorial service he wants. Michael wants his ashes spread at an industrial waste dump site, and he wants a pro-environmental song sung (Neil Young's “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?”). Toller and Mary see to it that his wishes are followed. The pro-environmental service, with the Abundant Life youth choir singing the Neil Young song, gets publicized.
This unwanted publicity angers powerful Abundant Life church donor, Edward Balq (Michael Gaston of “Bridge of Spies”). He owns a big energy company. After Toller argues with Balq about global warming, he is cautioned by Jeffers not to anger him further. Jeffers arranges for Balq to be on the program for the upcoming 250th anniversary celebration of the First Reformed church. Jeffers makes sure that Toller knows that his own status in the ceremony, and at the church, hang in the balance if he doesn't get along with Balq.
Researching Michael's environmental concerns, Toller seems to become radicalized himself. He wants to do something to stop the Balqs of the world from ruining the environment, and the upcoming church celebration where Balq will speak, seems to be just the time and place to do it. He suddenly becomes dedicated to a new cause.
Although Toller is invigorated by this cause, Jeffers and others are becoming alarmed with his physical and mental condition. At the same time, Toller is drawing closer to Mary. An encounter between the two of them at the Parsonage results in an arresting visual sequence in which Toller, in a kind of transcendental meditative state, seems to drift across the universe and into the hellish future of a ruined earth.
All this seems to be heading into familiar art film territory, darkness, despair, suicide, violence and nothingness — existential ennui. But an abrupt, unexpected ending seems to open up new possibilities for life and hope, maybe. Hawke, Seyfried, and Kyles give powerful performances here, along with Victoria Hill, who plays Toller's scorned lover, Esther. On the surface, this is a one-note, drab, downbeat movie, but it is more than that. There is a lot going on here. This film rates a B.
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