In a small church where tourist footfall is higher than that of the congregation, Rev. Toller (Ethan Hawke) cuts a lonely figure. This is not a minister who is shining light in his community this is a man who believes in his charge and yet struggles to pray. A man who journal his feelings as a form of meditative prayer in order to expunge his soul of his feelings, his doubts and his fears.
When a member of his congregation Mary (Amanda Seyfried) comes to him with concerns about her husband, Toller finds himself in a new wrestling match. Michael (Phillip Ettinger) is an eco-activist, deeply concerned with how we are treating our planet and as an expectant father, is in despair about the world he and Mary will bring a child into.
Despite his own private issues Toller tries to help the couple navigate a tricky but prescient issue that sends Toller further into his own despair.
Ethan Hawke's struggling priest speaks a truth that no minister dares. That behind closed doors there are times where he laments and doubts the very existence of God. That all he is working for may be folly and that the mega church he looks to for support may be an evil force rather than it's public face for good and saved souls.
Hawke's performance as Toller is one of his greatest to date, the weight of his struggle has a physical edge, he is weary and frustrated, burdened with tiredness and struggle. Yet he shows great care and compassion for those who need him most. How to doubt, wrestle but carry on with care and compassion for those who need it most may be the greatest skill of any clergy member.
Schrader's text on transcendental style is lived out in this film, slow moving but with a depth and breadth that resonates from the film's opening until its climax. This is film that transcends it's dramatic routes to reach into the spiritual and do some deeply profound work for all who engage with it. You will inevitably see not just glimpses of Bergman and Dreyer but certain sequences almost parallel to those of Taxi Driver as Toller drives around angered by his experience leading to some deeply shocking actions and scenes that are hard to watch.
This film is a wonderful exploration of faith, doubt, wrestling with the spiritual and how that impacts our world. It is a slow burning descent into chaos and darkness that acts as a meditation on the films themes and its profound impact. No element of this film moves with speed, not even the camera. Dialogue is delivered with a depth and power that will require multiple viewings to fully take in each wisdom laden line that in just its first viewing spoke to the very soul of who I am and where I'm increasingly finding myself on my own journey.