Will God forgive our global destruction?

June 12, 2018

Luke Pickrell looks at Paul Schrader’s movie about the moral quandary facing a reverend who can’t abide the destruction of our planet. Warning: Contains spoilers.

“I HAVE decided to keep a journal to set down all my thoughts and the simple events of my day,” writes a hunched man, sitting at a barren desk in a sparsely furnished room, kept company only by a bottle and small glass. “I will keep the diary for one year, and at the end of that time, it will be destroyed.”

So begins the story of Rev. Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), a middle-aged pastor at the center of Paul Schrader’s searing new film First Reformed.

Schrader, a longtime writer and director best known for writing Taxi Driver, uses Toller’s crisis of faith to explore some of our most important societal issues, including climate change, isolation and suicide. First Reformed also explores, if less overtly, who controls capitalist cultural and political institutions, and what we should do about it.

Toller presides over a Dutch Reform church in upstate New York. Once a safe haven along the Underground Railroad, First Reformed is now little more than a gift shop, attracting only the casual out-of-town tourist. The organ is broken, the garden overgrown, and Sunday mass draws less than a dozen.

Ethan Hawke as Rev. Ernst Toller in First Reformed
Ethan Hawke as Rev. Ernst Toller in First Reformed

Toller, for his part, lives an austere life of self-imposed semi-exile. He hates himself for the death of his son, killed in the invasion of Iraq, and the subsequent collapse of his marriage. After downing Pepto-Bismol and booze, he claims his faith is unbroken despite many hardships and conflicts. But he can no longer pray.


ONE OF those drawn to the church is Mary (Amanda Seyfried), who asks Toller to meet her boyfriend, Michael. Mary is pregnant, and while she wants to keep the child, Michael does not.

His reason shakes Toller’s faith, and broaches a topic that Hollywood normally keeps restricted to dystopian action movies: climate change. “Do you know what the world will be like in 2050?” a tense Michael asks Toller during their first meeting in Mary’s living room.

The walls of the room are covered in maps, charts and photos of murdered environmental activists. Behind Michael, a computer screensaver plays a time-lapse video of global temperature change. Year by year, the colors on the map turn a deeper shade of red. The video loops over and over again, a crimson reminder of a seemingly inevitable future.

Describing the repeated warnings from scientists about the coming climate disaster, Michael says, “I thought that people would change. I thought people would listen.”

Review

First Reformed, written and directed by Paul Schrader, starring Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried and Michael Gaston.

Michael’s reason for not wanting a child is thankfully not based in Malthusian ideas about the merits of depopulation. He simply dreads the world his child would inherit, and questions how he could knowingly subject someone to such a future. He imagines the accusations of his future child about being brought into the world of 2050: “You knew this all along, didn’t you?"

In an alternate world, Michael’s concern for the environment would be encouraged by existing social institutions, and there would be legal and effective channels for he and millions like him to be put to work solving the problem.

But Paul Schrader’s genre isn’t fantasy. Instead, Michael’s comrades are murdered, and he is beaten and arrested. He grows increasingly isolated and depressed, and is ultimately pushed to suicide. His ashes are scattered at a local superfund site to the tune of Neil Young’s “Who’s Gonna Stand Up?”

Michael’s fate picks away at what remains of Rev. Toller’s faith. What kind of world is this, in which concern for the human species warrants arrest or worse, and a parent considers it merciful not to give a child life?

Toller is haunted by images reminiscent of Edward Burtynsky’s eerie photographs of mining damage, and he cannot shake some of Michael’s final words: “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?”

Toller soon learns that one of his church’s major donors is Edward Balq, the CEO of a pollutant-intensive company, who thinks climate change is “a complicated issue.” Increasingly repulsed by the ugly reality hiding in plain sight, he demands to know where the church was when climate change deniers were running for office.

Toller’s transformation is almost complete, but a central question still remains — one that Michael struggled all his life to answer: what is to be done? The good reverend’s answer is to strap Michael’s explosive suicide vest beneath his robes. A dead man walking, he plans to kill Balq, along with many others, during service.


IN A 1976 interview for Film Comment, Schrader described Travis Bickle, the central character of Taxi Driver, as “ignorant of the nature of his problem. Travis’ problem is the same as the existential hero’s—that is, should I exist? But Travis doesn’t understand that this is his problem, so he focuses it elsewhere.”

Taxi Driver fans will recognize similar threads running through First Reformed. At last year’s Venice Film Festival, Schrader discussed his surprise at seeing just how similar the two films are, despite some 40 years of separation.

Just as Travis Bickle located the source of his problems in the politician Charles Palantine, Toller focuses his anger on Edward Balq. Because these targets personalize what is, in fact, a social problem, both Bickle and Toller head down a path of individual suicidal terror—a path that, as the socialist Leon Trotsky famously argued a century ago, only reflects and deepens the problems of isolation and alienation.

Capitalism’s destruction of the environment is a social issue, capable of being solved only by a mass social movement that changes the economy. As Toller pulled the black robe over his explosive vest, I couldn’t help but wonder what might have led him down a different path of action. Faced with an issue impacting some 7 billion people, why put the weight of the world fall on his shoulders alone?

Part of the reason might lie in Toller’s particular makeup. But many “personal” problems like addiction, trauma, suicide, violence and depression are actually social and political problems, better understood in the larger context of a society that fosters them. Perhaps a larger social movement, capable of articulating a different world, would have lifted up isolated individuals like Rev. Toller.

As with Taxi Driver, the conclusion to First Reformed is exquisitely open-ended. Just as the next chapter of human history is still to be written.

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