Culture column: First Reformed
31 March 2022
For this installment of our culture column, we’ve changed the format ever so slightly.
Our editor Kayle Crosson and our regular contributor Chloé ten Brink discuss the 2017 film First Reformed – and their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Quick thing before we get going – there are spoilers revealed in this chat – so if you haven’t seen it, you’ve been warned.
Kayle Crosson: How did you find out about this film?
Chloé ten Brink: In all honesty, I found this film when 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 tackled a distraught – and extreme – environmental activist. I find it really interesting how social movements, political resistance and activism are portrayed in popular culture and thought this film would be an interesting way to engage with the topic.
While that activist, Michael, is a key point for the storyline, this film is so much more than that! It’s a film which tackles despair, a feeling which isn’t too far-fetched when looking at current world news, mixed in with faith, environmentalism, nihilism and more.
KC: Right. Prior to seeing this film when it was out in theatres in 2017, the stuff I read about climate always ended – to quote Jenny Offill’s novel Weather – with an ‘obligatory note of hope’. And in this film, that’s not really there. The ending is pretty inconclusive, it’s not a neatly tied narrative by any means.
I know a lot of people in this line of work have a complicated relationship with hope, and then there’s the existential weight of this, the immorality of the people least responsible bearing the worst of this – there’s so many elements of this that are so overwhelming that I think you have to give people that space to have the experience of not having that obligatory note of hope.
Do you remember that scene where Ethan Hawke goes to the main church and speaks to the pastor? And they have a chilling interaction where the pastor says “God’s destroyed his creation before, maybe this is just what he’s doing” – how did you feel about that scene?
CTB: This scene was harrowing to me, to say the least. Equating climate change to being a part of God’s plan is, to me, an act of taking the back seat. When the head pastor compares climate change to Noah’s ark, claiming God destroyed his creation “once, for forty days and forty nights”, I shuddered.
That train of thought allows one to accept climate change as a fate, rather than a consequence of human actions.
I think it also brings up a huge multitude of questions around the role of religion or faith in fighting environmental destruction. Climate change brings up wider questions on the very make-up of our universe and notions of plans and afterlife. I know some religious individuals or groups see environmental destruction as an act of violence towards their higher power’s creation.
Toller, played by Ethan Hawke, recognises this and tries to argue that the church could be in a position to help the environmental cause even. Faith can be a very powerful tool for engaging with the natural world. This film manages to portray these multiple mindsets which I found profoundly intriguing.
KC: As the film comes to a close, you have these very visual scenes of Ethan Hawke walking around and reckoning with the pollution he sees. And then we have that ending. What did you make of it?
CTB: I think there is no way of talking about this ending without spoiling it.
I want to firstly say how much I appreciated it from an aesthetic point of view. Throughout the film, Schrader really carefully uses the tools at his disposal in film to create a sense of uneasiness and you follow Ethan Hawke’s characters’ evolving emotions.
There is a careful use of silence and close-up shots, and a depressing but delicate colour palette made up of washes of gray, beige and blue. The use of the journal as an austere form of narration is personal but repetitive, like a diary often is. If anything the majority of the film and its stylistic choices forces a monotony on the viewer, akin to despair, depression.
The last scene is seemingly sped up, it is frantic and in the very final shot the camera spins around Hawke and Seyfried in a dizzying and moving emotional climax – their embrace. There are many ways to interpret this scene, some think it might be a manifestation of last dying thoughts. To me it was almost a hopeful scene, one in which Hawke chooses love and passion and people instead of austerity and despair. Not everyone would agree.
KC: You’re so right in saying that he chooses community. He chooses connection ultimately. Even though the film overall doesn’t have the obligatory note of hope feel to it at all, it’s that ultimate human companionship that comes through at the end.
I don’t think I saw it that way when I first saw the film – but I think that’s because I didn’t realise how bad climate change actually was. I think re-watching it, it was a very different experience.
CTB: It’s not an explicit message of hope and I think most people wouldn’t see it as such, as you did. And I actually appreciate that the film doesn’t feed into the same “obligatory note of hope”.
The environmental movement is often accused of doom and gloom, of only putting forward negativity. Is it the responsibility of pop-culture to counter this and offer us hope and divertissement? While it’s nice to change the narrative and hope is essential, I feel that this portrayal of despair, of existential dread, is not an uncommon human experience and there is power in acknowledging the imperfect and tortured process of confronting what the climate crisis may mean to you for the first time.
While the drive towards extremism and the harsh symbol of the suicide-bomber jacket is used in the film, this is overall a heart-wrenching human emotional expereince which Schrader brings to life.
KC: Is there anything else that struck you about the film?
CTB: This is a slight tangent as it’s not directly linked to how the film engages with climate change but I found Mary’s (Amanda Seyfried’s) character interesting and slightly troubling.
The film focuses on Hawke, a pastor in distress, who consults Michael, Mary’s depressed and extreme husband, the other emotional focus of the film. These are both men who are given ample space to explore their unhappiness, their existentialism. While it is true men aren’t often given this space and it is refreshing to see men who are not simply macho saviours, their relation to the only central woman of the film is interesting.
Mary is there to support them, in everyday tasks but most importantly emotionally. She is a constant and apart from a short scene in which she unsurprisingly is distressed at the death of her husband, she is incredibly level-headed, pious and positive throughout. Even when being confronted by a husband who is so distraught at the idea of bringing a child into the current climate that he wants her to have an abortion, she is resolute and maintains her hope at bringing new life into this world. Mary is, in some ways, a vehicle for reason in this film and calm for the men.
KC: you’re so right about how we don’t see Mary’s position – she has these resounding positions of wanting to have this baby and we don’t see how she gets there.
CTB: I would just like to also say that this film was made in 2017, when I was a teenager.
This film regularly demonstrates despair at the world they left or created for their children and I know this frustration at the injustice of this inheritance motivates a lot of other young people like myself to get involved in the environmental movement.
I thought the film engaged well with this intergenerational question. I felt a melancholic irony while Toller and Esther, a worker at their Church ‘Abundant Life’, look at their young Christian choir and reminisce: “do you remember that? when everything was ahead of you?” You can’t help but think: what lies ahead? Is that world a habitable one?
As a young person, closer in age to the members of the youth choir than any of the adults, I do not empathize with the guilt the adults feel at what they have left but rather the anxiety at what is in store.
As Abundant Life Pastor Joel Jeffers says: “these kids want certainty”.