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First Reformed and Processing Climate Anxiety through Fiction

(Warning: Here be spoilers.)

“The bad times, they will begin, and from that point everything moves very quickly. You know, this social structure can’t bear the stress of multiple crises. Opportunistic diseases, anarchy, martial law, the tipping point. And this isn’t in some, like, distant future. You will live to see this.”

The young man speaks from pure despair. He is an activist, deeply concerned about the future of the planet. He has devoted his life to fighting for its preservation. When we first meet Michael Mensana (Philip Ettinger) in Paul Schrader’s devastating 2017 drama, First Reformed, we are instantly brought into the head space of this deeply anxious character. We can tell everything just by looking at him. He is practically vibrating with stress. He seems coated with the kind of sweat that follows multiple sleepless nights. His despair is that born from the knowledge of certain doom: The imminent transformation of the planet’s climate from one conducive to human habitation to one lethally hostile to much of its current life.

Or at least, it is doom that Michael deems certain of. His interlocutor tries to provide a different perspective.

“Despair is a development of pride so great that it chooses one’s certitude rather than admit God is more creative than we are.”

So replies Father Ernst Toller, played by Ethan Hawke in one of his very best roles to date. Toller is a priest in the First Reformed Church in Snowbridge, New York. He is a quiet, thoughtful man, religious in the simple, sincere way. He spends his days tending to his historic church and delivering sermons to his congregation. Underneath his temperate exterior, Father Toller hides oceanic reserves of pain, drinking heavily through the evenings so that he may wash away the loss of his son and lessen the anguish of witnessing a world gone wrong. His church, a 250-year old Dutch Reformed institution which once served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, has now become more of a historical curiosity than a place of worship. He sells caps and other souvenirs to visiting tourists. His congregation has diminished to a bare bones attendance.

First Reformed opens with Toller’s narration. It continues throughout the story, giving us an intimate look into his thought processes and emotional states as the story develops, but at the outset all we are told is that he has taken to writing a journal, if only for a year. Straight away we can’t help but intuit: Father Toller is going through something.

“I have decided to keep a journal. Not in a word program or digital file, but in longhand, writing every word out so that every inflection of penmanship, every word chosen, scratched out, revised, is recorded. To set down all my thoughts and the simple events of my day factually and without hiding anything. When writing about oneself, one should show no mercy. I will keep this diary for one year; 12 months. And at the end of that time, it will be destroyed. Shredded, then burnt. The experiment will be over.”

There is nothing explicitly despairing in this opening, but nevertheless we cannot help but wonder: Why now? Why would someone decide to start a journal at Father Toller’s age–and one destined to be destroyed as soon as it is completed? The events of First Reformed will see Toller’s long-gestating, hidden despair come to the surface.

The conversation between Toller and Mensana happens near the start of the film and it lays out its thesis right there and then. The two have been brought together at Mensana’s house at the behest of his wife, Mary (Amanda Seyfried). Mary attends Toller’s church services. She is one of the few who does. Without the megachurch in town supporting it financially, Toller’s church would likely fold within a few months. Mary is pregnant, and she has been worried about Michael, a radical environmentalist who has had trouble with the law and who has been showing signs of extreme depression. And so Mary has asked Toller to come speak to Michael, which leads to the conversation described in part thus far.

Michael’s emotional state is inextricably tied to the fate that he sees the world hurtling towards. One of catastrophic climate change, water crises, biomass collapse, and unimaginable human strife. It is a fate that is overwhelmingly backed by science and one that is looming large over the psyche of many people around the globe. For Michael, the grief he feels manifests itself in a very striking way: He wants Mary to get an abortion, as he considers bringing a child into the world that is to come an act of utmost cruelty to that child. The entire conversation between Michael and Toller is one of the most powerful scenes I have seen in many years, and this sentiment–of being reticent at the idea of bringing another life into a planet set to turn very hostile indeed–is one I feel deeply. Watching it, and First Reformed as a whole, made me realise quite how much a part of me yearns to see my anxieties about climate change being addressed in the media I engage with.

As Michael lays out his vision of the world brought to ruin by capitalist industry, Father Toller tries to counsel him, offering words that are meant not to bring him hope exactly, but to remind him of the chance that there might be something other than despair, and that life’s meaning is found in the uncertain no man’s land between the two:

“Courage is the solution to despair, reason provides no answers. I can’t know what the future will bring; we have to choose despite uncertainty. Wisdom is holding two contradictory truths in our mind, simultaneously, Hope and despair. A life without despair is a life without hope. Holding these two ideas in our head is life itself.”

Climate change is a topic that is never far from my mind. I use many different terms for it. Climate change. Climate breakdown. Climate crisis. Climate collapse. I read a lot about it. I write a lot about it too. I wouldn’t say I obsess over it, but I don’t think I’m too far off. It follows me around everywhere like a dark cloud that I can only ever find momentary relief from. ‘Obsession’ is probably the wrong word for it anyway. That term carries with it connotations of disproportionality: You care about this thing more than it warrants. Such a judgement seems impossible for a topic that concerns the rising chances of civilisation as we know it being wiped out within the foreseeable future. Climate grief, or climate anxiety, is an increasingly prevalent psychological affliction. Mental health professionals from around the world are reporting more and more cases of (especially) young people who are wracked by psychological problems arising from their (correct) perception that the Earth’s climate is rapidly heading towards a drastically more hostile one than the one that we have been lucky enough to enjoy as a species thus far. According to a report in the BBC:

No stats are available on the prevalence of eco-anxiety, but some experts have noted an increase in public anxiety around climate change. Professor of psychology and environmental studies at the College of Wooster, Ohio, Susan Clayton, co-authored a 2017 report titled Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance. She says: “We can say that a significant proportion of people are experiencing stress and worry about the potential impacts of climate change, and that the level of worry is almost certainly increasing.”

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – the guide mental health professionals use to make diagnoses in the US – does not yet include ‘eco-anxiety’ as a specific condition, but the American Psychological Association produced a 2017 report detailing the impacts of climate change on mental health which made reference to the term ‘eco-anxiety’. The glossary describes it as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”.

It is an affliction that I would say I suffer from, and one that Michael Mensana most definitely feels weighing on his mind. After his first meeting with Toller, the two arrange another session. That session never comes to pass, however, because when Toller goes to meet Michael, at a last minute change of venue, Toller finds the young man’s lifeless body lying in a crimson-stained snowy forest with a shotgun next to it. Michael has succumbed to his despair. Understandably, this all proves too much for Father Toller. In his own quiet way, he begins to unravel, all the years of anguish, so carefully held down, finally breaking their way free and beginning to assert themselves. Before he dies, Michael opens Toller’s eyes to the state the world has been brought to. I am not a religious person, so Toller’s understanding of the issue will be refracted through different lenses than mine. And yet despite that difference, First Reformed manages to put the underlying emotions of the matter in an incredibly stark, religious way, that speaks to even a nonbeliever like me with tremendous power:

“Will God forgive us for destroying his creation?”

The analogy for nonbelievers is clear and simple, yet it’s interesting how you can express it in similar language to that of the faithful: We have been blessed with a miracle of a planet. In the midst of a lifeless void, our species was given an unimaginable bounty, a resplendent paradise. Yet in our hubris and our greed we strayed from the path and as a result have despoiled the most holy of treasures. There’s a lot of nuance there in terms of who and what we actually assign blame to (industry and institutions and power structures and not the majority of ordinary people), but nevertheless the broad picture remains.

Until First Reformed, I didn’t know how much I needed to see our stories start addressing what is the most pressing issue of our time. Or maybe I’ve just always been afraid that when the reality of climate change becomes inescapable, and it starts becoming more present in our fiction as a result, that it will be used as cheap set dressing to give a narrative ‘contemporary flavour’, rather than being treated with the gravity that it calls for. First Reformed emphatically does the latter. Shot in austere tones, in 4:3, with minimal camera moves and almost zero instances of non-diegetic music, the film commits itself to not only putting across Father Toller’s lifestyle, but also the severity of the underlying theme. It tackles head on all the emotions that I find myself experiencing whenever I ponder the coming decades: The despair at the reality of the situation, the white hot rage at those responsible, the sorrow in the face of the unimaginable suffering already being wrought, the desire to do something, anything, about it, and the deflated resignation that comes with knowing that an individual is so often powerless to enact the change necessary.

One of the main arcs in the story of First Reformed is the upcoming anniversary of Toller’s church. Toller has great respect and admiration for the church’s history. He would prefer to honor the anniversary in a quiet, dignified way. The local megachurch that actually owns First Reformed has other plans, however. Their vision is a grand ceremony, broadcast live from the First Reformed’s modest venue into the megachurch’s colossal building, with the mayor and other powerful movers and shakers in attendance at the former site. The topic of climate change goes hand in hand–both in real life and in First Reformed–with the corruption of the institutions that are meant to have our best interests at heart. This may be old news to many, but everyone needs an awakening at some point. For Toller, it’s a perfect storm of events that leads him to see things clearly. Michael paints an alarming portrait of the future of the planet; Toller uses Michael’s laptop to do further research on the issues at hand; and when Toller honors Michael’s wishes to use his funeral as a testimony against those who have helped damn the planet, he finds himself sidelined in the planning stages of his own church’s anniversary by the biggest financial backer of the megachurch that owns his church: the owner of a local polluting factory, who deems Toller’s enactment of Michael’s will–and any acknowledgement of climate change–a ‘political act’.

This is of course how the powerful have always sidelined any challenge to the status quo. In their framing, a polluter destroying the environment is simply the natural order of things–a neutral act—and any resistance to it is inherently ‘political’. Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), the industrialist who clashes with Toller in First Reformed and who wishes to silence him, dismisses Toller’s concerns over climate change, deeming the issue ‘complicated’. Toller’s opposition is framed in his progressively Christian way: He sees it as a cut and dried example of despoilation, and a failure of humanity’s stewardship of God’s creation. When the megachurch’s owner naturally sides with Balq and his own financial interests, attempting to spin the looming catastrophe as perhaps yet another unknowable part of God’s plan, it all proves too much for Toller, and he resolves to take drastic action.

Before he killed himself with a firearm, Michael had been planning another route. After Michael’s death, Toller finds out from his computer that he was researching how to craft an explosive vest for some presumed act of industrial sabotage. After a mounting series of eye opening encounters with the powers that be–and a possible cancer diagnosis to add to his gloom–Toller, seeing no way out, resolves to deliver the anniversary as Balq and the megachurch wish, but with a deadly twist: He will wear a homemade explosive vest underneath his tunic, and in the middle of his speech he will incinerate himself and those who he sees as the architects of so much suffering and hypocrisy in the world along with him. In the lead-up to the event, Toller vehemently urges Mary to stay away from the service, but as he is preparing to go into the church on the day, he sees Mary coming in the front door. Defeated, Toller tears off the vest, wraps himself in barbed wire, and we are left with an intentionally ambiguous ending in which he prepares to drink a glass of drain cleaner, which we are never definitely shown him drinking. Mary shows up and the two share a loving, passionate kiss as the camera pans around them in an entirely uncharacteristic way and similarly atypical non-diegetic music plays before the screen cuts to black.

First Reformed hit me like a ton of bricks. Not only because it treated the issue of climate change and our murderous campaign against life on Earth with as much gravity as it deserves, but also because it took me into the mind of someone processing their grief over that issue in much the same way as I am–yet who happens to come from a wildly different walk of life. Who has in so many ways a wholly divergent perspective on life, the universe, and humanity’s place in all of it. I have never been anything other than an atheist. Yet I found something incredibly compelling about Father Ernst Toller’s formulation of his climate grief. ‘Will God forgive us for destroying his creation?’ The film touched me as much as it did because it let me process my own feelings of anxiety and grief through the eyes of someone who I otherwise have very little in common with. They say fiction is the great engine of empathy. In letting me into the mind of someone who is dealing with so many of the same feelings as I am, First Reformed made me feel a little bit less alone, and a little bit less insane for living under the dark cloud that I do.

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Petr has come to peace with the imminent fall of civilization. He thinks that as long as dogs, beer, and the Before Sunrise movies survive, then maybe it all wouldn't have been for nothing.

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