Culture Column: First Reformed – Green News Ireland
March 31, 2022
For this episode of our culture column, we’ve changed the format slightly.
Our editor Kayle Crosson and our regular contributor Chlostar ten Brink discusses the 2017 film First Reformed – and their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Quick thing before we start – there are spoilers revealed in this chat – so if you haven’t seen it, you’ve been warned.
Kayle Crosson: How did you discover this film?
Chloestar ten Brink: In all honesty, I found this movie by looking for movies that deal with climate change or are classified as “cli-fi”.
I was drawn to this film because from the description I read online, it was about a distraught – and extreme – environmental activist. I find it really interesting to see how social movements, political resistance and activism are portrayed in popular culture and thought this film would be an interesting way to approach the subject.
While this activist, Michael, is a key part of the story, this film is much more than that! It’s a film that addresses desperation, a feeling that isn’t overly exaggerated in the face of world news, mixed with faith, environmentalism, nihilism, and so on.
KC: Right. Before I saw this film when it hit theaters in 2017, the things I read about the climate always ended – to quote Jenny Offill’s novel Weather – with an obligatory ‘note of hope’. And in this movie, it’s not really there. The ending is pretty inconclusive, it’s by no means a neatly tied narrative.
I know a lot of people in this business have a complicated relationship with hope, and then there’s the existential weight of that, the immorality of the least responsible people bearing the worst – there are so many elements that are so overwhelming that I think you need to give people that space to experience not having that obligatory note of hope.
Do you remember that scene where Ethan Hawke goes to the main church and talks to the pastor? And they have a scary interaction where the pastor says “God destroyed his creation before, maybe that’s just what he does” – how did you feel about that scene?
CTB: This scene was painful for me, to say the least. Equating climate change with being part of God’s plan is, for me, an act of taking the back seat. When the head pastor compares climate change to Noah’s ark, saying God destroyed his creation “once, for forty days and forty nights,” I shudder.
This current of thought makes it possible to accept climate change as a fate rather than as a consequence of human actions.
I think it also raises a host of questions about the role of religion or faith in the fight against environmental destruction. Climate change raises broader questions about the very makeup of our universe and notions of planes and beyond. I know that some individuals or religious groups see the destruction of the environment as an act of violence against the creation of their higher power.
Toller, played by Ethan Hawke, recognizes this and tries to argue that the church might even be able to help the environmental cause. Faith can be a very powerful tool for interacting with the natural world. This film manages to portray these multiple mindsets which I found deeply intriguing.
KC: As the film draws to a close, you have these very visual scenes of Ethan Hawke walking around and taking in the pollution he sees. And then we have that end. What have you done with it?
CTB: I think there’s no way to talk about this ending without spoiling it.
First I want to say how much I enjoyed it from an aesthetic point of view. Throughout the film, Schrader very carefully uses the tools at his disposal in the film to create a sense of unease, and you follow the evolution of the emotions of Ethan Hawke’s characters.
There’s a careful use of silence and close-ups, and a depressing but delicate color palette of washes of grey, beige and blue. The use of the diary as an austere form of storytelling is personal but repetitive, as a diary often is. On the contrary, the majority of the film and its stylistic choices impose on the spectator a monotony, close to despair, to depression.
The final scene is seemingly sped up, it’s frenetic, and in the very last shot, the camera circles around Hawke and Seyfried in a dizzying and moving emotional climax – their embrace. There are many ways to interpret this scene, some think it could be a manifestation of the last dying thoughts. For me, it was almost a hopeful scene, a scene in which Hawke chooses love, passion and people over austerity and despair. Not everyone would agree.
KC: You are so right that he chooses the community. He finally chooses the connection. Even if the film as a whole lacks the obligatory note of hope at all, it is this ultimate human companionship that shows up at the end.
I don’t think I saw it that way when I first saw the movie – but I think that’s because I didn’t realize how bad climate change actually was. I think seeing him again was a very different experience.
CTB: It’s not an explicit message of hope and I don’t think most people would see it as such, like you did. And I really appreciate that the movie doesn’t have the same obligatory note of hope.
The environmental movement is often accused of pessimism, of only promoting negativity. Is it pop culture’s responsibility to counter this and offer us hope and entertainment? While it’s nice to change the narrative and hope is essential, I think this portrayal of despair, of existential fear, is not a rare human experience and there’s power in acknowledging the flawed process and tortured to confront what the climate crisis may mean for you for the first time.
While the tendency towards extremism and the harsh symbol of the suicide bomber jacket are used in the film, it is overall a harrowing human emotional experience that Schrader brings to life.
KC: Is there anything else that struck you in the film?
CTB: It’s a slight tangent because it’s not directly related to how the film deals with climate change, but I found the character of Mary (Amanda Seyfried) interesting and slightly unsettling.
The film focuses on Hawke, a distressed pastor, who consults Michael, the depressed and extreme husband of Mary, the film’s other emotional focus. These are two men who have ample room to explore their unhappiness, their existentialism. While it’s true that men don’t often have that space, and it’s refreshing to see men who aren’t just macho saviors, their relationship with the film’s only central woman is interesting.
Mary is there to support them, in the daily tasks but especially emotionally. She’s a constant and aside from a short scene in which she’s unsurprisingly upset over her husband’s death, she’s incredibly level-headed, pious, and positive throughout. Even when faced with a husband who is so distraught about bringing a child in the current climate that he wants her to have an abortion, she is resolute and maintains her hope of bringing new life. in this world. Mary is, in some ways, a vehicle for sanity in this film and calmness for men.
KC: You’re so right that we don’t see Mary’s position – she’s got these resounding positions of wanting to have this baby and we don’t see how she’s getting there.
CTB: I would also just like to say that this film was made in 2017, when I was a teenager.
This film regularly bears witness to the despair at the world they left or created for their children and I know that this frustration at the injustice of this legacy motivates many other young people like me to get involved in the environmental movement.
I found that the film dealt well with this intergenerational question. I felt a wistful irony as Toller and Esther, a worker from their Abundant Life Church, looked at their young Christian choir and remembered: “Do you remember that? when everything was in front of you?“You can’t help but think: what awaits us? Is this world habitable?
As a young person, closer in age to the members of the Youth Choir than to any adult, I don’t understand the guilt adults feel over what they left behind, but rather the anxiety over what awaits them.
As Abundant Life Pastor Joel Jeffers says, “These kids want certainty.”