‘First Reformed’ grapples with faith in age of climate change

Catherine Borthwick/The Miscellany News.

On the Friday evening before spring break, I hopped on the train to Manhattan, eager to get home to watch a movie after a week-long bender cramming for midterms. As twilight settled over Poughkeepsie, I rested my head against the window and watched the gray landscape blanketed in snow pass by in a blur. Everyone always says to sit on the Hudson River side on the Metro-North, but I often prefer to let my gaze drift over the industrial wasteland and shabby neighborhoods to the east. There’s the old quarry south of Poughkeepsie that seems as though its chalky skeleton is being swallowed by the ground. There are cemeteries and old barns propped up on hills. And every so often, a little town with its sailboats swaddled in blue tarps for the winter will pass outside the train window. 

When I arrived home, I nestled under my covers and watched Paul Shrader’s “First Reformed” (2017), a transcendental style film about a pastor struggling with the reality of climate change, set in a rickety small town in upstate New York. Ethan Hawke delivers a brilliant performance as Reverend Ernst Toller, a solemn protagonist whose narration spans a year through the lens of daily, self-flagellating journal entries. He finds himself faced with the harshness of the impending climate threat when he’s implored by a member of his congregation (played by Amanda Seyfried) to help her husband, an emotionally unstable environmental activist.

“First Reformed” echoes the industrial desolation that I am always drawn to on my way home from school. Each shot is carefully constructed, framing ashen houses and the crisp, white architecture of the colonial First Reformed church with deliberation. These moments, juxtaposed with the stark interior of the town megachurch, Abundant Life, paint a picture of corporate domination and a lost era of small town America. Rev. Toller’s First Reformed church is sparsely attended, receiving the occasional visitor due to its history as part of the underground railroad. Abundant Life, on the other hand, is a bureaucratic, lifeless operation that is much more popular among the town residents (despite its reputation as more of a company than a church). Both churches are funded by Balq Industries, a local oil company, which weighs heavily on Rev. Toller as the 250th anniversary of the First Reformed church’s consecration draws near.

“First Reformed” is both visually stunning and bone-chilling in its exploration of faith and despair in our modern, corporate-driven America. In an existentially grim scene between Rev. Toller and Michael (the aforementioned climate activist), Toller remarks that “a life without despair is a life without hope.” Yet the film navigates an immense amount of despair, and very few glimmers of hope. But several moments dig deep in the sense that they represent transcendence above the bleak landscape of the climate threat: A bike ride through the park between Rev. Toller and his congregation member (and eventual friend), Mary. A lingering faith in God to which Rev. Toller desperately clings. And finally, the hauntingly beautiful dream sequence near the end of the film, which feels like a perfect scene through how it represents a complete divergence from the established aesthetic of the film. 

Ultimately, “First Reformed” poses the urgent question: How can we consciously pollute and destroy God’s creation in good faith? (Six years after the release of “First Reformed,” one might pose this question to Catholic President Joe Biden, who just greenlighted ConocoPhillips’ $8 billion oil drilling project). In a more secular America than ever before, and as we hurtle towards an irreversible climate future, “First Reformed” achieves perfect resonance. As the events of the movie build towards its climax, and the 250th anniversary of the consecration draws closer, Rev. Toller asks “WILL GOD FORGIVE US?” on the message board in front of First Reformed. It’s impossible to know for sure.

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