‘Will God forgive us?’: Confronting climate change through ‘First Reformed’

Wednesday, October 16, 2019 - 11:02am

'First Reformed'

'First Reformed' Buy this photo
A24

It’s a question that’s asked time and time again throughout Paul Schrader’s film “First Reformed.” It’s a question I find myself asking whenever I read yet another headline announcing the death of a species, the melting of a glacier or the failure of another climate agreement. Like most humans, especially young humans with (hopefully) many more years on this planet, I am afraid for my future. I am afraid of rising temperatures and everything they are expected to bring with them: crop failures, climate refugees, more extreme weather, more pain, more suffering. My fear grows stronger every day, and I still don’t quite know how to deal with it. 

The characters in “First Reformed” are afraid, too. The entire film is drenched in a despair that many of us feel to the core — guilt about what we have done, anxiety about what is going to happen next. Two men in particular feel it most acutely: Ethan Hawke (“Before Midnight”) as Reverend Toller, a well-meaning but tormented pastor and Philip Ettinger (“Indignation”) as Michael, a soon-to-be father obsessed with the coming end of the world. 

Toller lets his despair about both climate change and the death of his son eat him alive, partaking in binge drinking he knows might just kill him. He is a dying man on a dying planet and he hardly cares enough to save himself. Michael, though physically healthy compared to Toller, is grieved by the new life carried by his wife Mary (Amanda Seyfried, “Mamma Mia!”). At one point he asks Toller, “But how can you sanction bringing a girl … a child full of hope and naive belief into a world … when that little girl grows to be a young woman and looks you in the eyes and says, ‘You knew all along, didn’t you?’”

Both Toller and Michael are overwhelmed by this despair — it’s so easy to let it overwhelm you. In the face of the megacorporations and billionaires who run our world, it’s natural to feel small, to feel helpless in saving the earth. The power of these feelings is only amplified when we convince ourselves that these feelings are ours alone, something we must confront on our own.

For most of “First Reformed,” characters appear detached from each other, physically and emotionally tethered to their own bodies. A profound sense of loneliness pervades the film’s cold, biting New England winter. But there are brief, striking moments of intimacy too, and this intimacy is precisely what brings characters out of their despair. Every interaction between Toller and Mary is electric, and just a touch of their hands inspires a transcendent, psychedelic dream sequence. In this sequence, we see the two soaring over beautiful natural landscapes. This scenery, though, is soon swapped out for images showing heaps upon heaps of trash, air-polluting factories and other man-made ecological nightmares. Once these images come to the forefront, Toller and Mary are removed from the picture entirely. Their love and their connection simply cannot exist in that world. We cannot exist in that world, at least not for much longer.

Maybe saving the planet in order to save our lives and the lives of the people we love is selfish. After all, we alone are responsible for climate change and we alone are obligated to fix it; we should feel compelled to do whatever we can to reverse the course the planet is heading toward out of sheer humanity and decency. But if selfishness is the thing that can ultimately save us from ourselves, I can’t imagine a better, more worthy motivator than love. 

Climate change is real and it’s happening right now. More than 97 percent of scientists agree. And we’re running out of time before our descendants no longer have a healthy and habitable earth to live and love on. And that — love — matters. Of course it does. It matters more than anything.