[Content Warning: discussions of suicide]
Earlier this month I finally got around to watching Paul Schrader’s excellent First Reformed. The film is about Pastor Toller (Ethan Hawke), the head of a small church in upstate New York who experiences a deep existential crisis after an encounter with the husband of one of his parishioners, Mary (Amanda Seyfried). It’s a beautifully shot, deeply somber and depressing film, and I wanted to write down a few of my thoughts about it while it was still fresh on my mind.I won’t talk about everything that I think is worth mentioning in the film—for example, I won’t discuss the relation between the First Reformed Church that Toller heads and the mega-church headed by Cedric the Entertainer—but, rather, I want to focus on a couple of things that I think struck me as particularly important. My presentation here isn’t systematic and doesn’t amount to a complete reading of the film, but, as might be expected, spoilers abound. Finally, as with all readings, I don’t want to make some authoritative statement on how one ought to see the film, but to only point out things that are already in the text that make the film interesting to me.
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I want to start off by noting that First Reformed is not a movie about climate change. I’m not actually sure if that’s how most people read the film—I haven’t read anything about it since I wanted to get my own thoughts out on paper first—but that’s how it was presented to me. I think this is a mistake.
Instead, I think that the film is primarily a character study in despair or in how that sickness unto death—that profound anxiety at the human condition—infects and destroys a person. As such, climate change is only the particular cause of his sickness and his interaction with Mary’s husband Michaelhis moment of exposure, but isn’t the main focus. Instead, climate change serves as a kind of ideological MacGuffin in the film which sets things in motion.
I say this for a couple of related reasons.
First, when we meet Toller, he is already in the middle of a profound crisis. Indeed, the very first thing we learn about him is that he has taken up a year-long project of keeping a diary because he can no longer pray. I repeat: he is a man of God who has lost his connection with God. As such, he occupies the same social and psychological space as singer who has lost their voice, a painter who can no longer see, or an athlete who has been paralyzed.
A bit later in the film we find out what precipitated this crisis.
TOLLER: My father taught at VMI. I encouraged my son to enlist. It was the family tradition. Like his father, his grandfather. Patriotic tradition. My wife was very opposed. But he enlisted against her wishes. Six months later he was killed in Iraq. There was no moral justification for this conflict. My wife could not live with me after that. Who could blame her? I left the military. Rev Jeffers at Abundant Life Church heard about my situation. They offered me a position at First Reformed. And here I am.
Although it is not explicitly stated, it is safe to assume that Toller’s inability to pray is a direct result of the loss of his son, the collapse of his marriage, and the role he had to play as the link in the family tradition that spurred his son to enlist.
We also discover that as a means of coping Toller has been drinking very heavily for a very long time. We see that his trash contains more empty bottles of liquor than food, that there’s a significant amount of blood in his urine, and eventually, we learn that he has stomach cancer as a direct result of his alcoholism. The destruction of his body, then, mirrors and is caused by his psychological deterioration. He drinks because he is in despair, he is in despair because he has lost meaning in his life, and he has lost meaning in his life because the structures and narratives that used to make sense of his life have stopped working—indeed, his beliefs in tradition, patriotism, and faith have folded back on themselves to leave him with nothing.
In light of all of these considerations, we can clearly see that Toller is not, as it were, an “ordinary guy” who is confronted and destroyed by the realization that climate disaster is inevitable. Rather, he is someone who is already psychologically broken before he makes any contact with either Mary or Michael.
This is further reinforced by meeting between Michael and Toller. The scene is an odd one insofar as what it does and doesn’t show: on the one hand, what the audience is presented with is something that most people (including Toller) would already be familiar with. As an audience hear the same familiar sounding scientific facts about the state of the world, the escalating threat of global warming, and the fact that nothing significant has been done about the problem in well over a decade. There is nothing new in this discussion that can explain to the audience why this young man (Michael) whose wife is expecting a child would be so profoundly crushed by this information. After all, we know it too! (I’ll get back to this point momentarily) On the other hand and at the same time, even this brief, rudimentary presentation of the facts is cut short by Toller’s narration—if there’s anything profound and fundamental that these two come to know, we, the audience don’t get to see it. As such, on the assumption that it is something during that conversation that causes the dramatic shift in Toller’s behavior, it remains opaque and mysterious to the audience. If, on the other hand, the specific details just aren’t that important—if we are simply to understand what happens as simply the moment of inflection in Toller’s psychology—then the visual storytelling makes much more sense.
Immediately after this short discussion about the climate threat, three things of great importance are explicitly pointed out to the audience. First, Toller directly diagnoses Michael as someone in despair:
TOLLER: ….So it is not about the child. Or about Mary. It is about you and your despair. Your lack of hope. (beat) Throughout history humans have woken up in the dead of night, confronted by blackness. The sense that life is without meaning. The Suffering Unto Death…Man’s achievements have brought him to a great place where life as we know it may cease in the foreseeable future. That is new. Our powerlessness. The blackness is not.
Even by Toller’s lights, the problem before them isn’t one that’s out there—the immediate problem is with Michael and the fact that he has lost all sense of how to live in the world. This problem of despair is an old problem, but it is not one that afflicts all of us (as the effects of climate change do), but only certain people. Michael is one of them.
Second, we get the first initial glimpse of how Michael plans on restore order for himself:
MICHAEL: ...Do you believe in martyrdom, Reverend?
TOLLER: I’m not sure what you mean.
MICHAEL: The Saints of God, the early Christians who would not renounce their faith, the missionaries attacked in the jungle--do you believe they died for a purpose?
TOLLER: I do.
The suggestion is a clear one: life is meaningless and death is coming, but through sacrificing oneself for a cause, one’s death can be of service. If it is impossible to live a life that doesn’t make sense, but possible to die a death that does, then one can, as it were, live even with suicide.It is this suggestion—the suggestion that meaning can be restored through death—that grabs a hold of Toller, not the facts about climate change.
Finally, if we suppose that the main focus of the film is the information he learns about climate change, then it’s worth asking why this knowledge only affects Toller and Michael and not anyone else.
Specifically, we can ask why Mary isn’t affected by it in the same way as her husband given that she has been around Michael significantly longer than Toller and is well aware of what he believes. Indeed, Toller asks her as much when he goes to Mary’s house after Michael’s suicide. When asks her whether she’s an activist and she says: “I share Michael’s beliefs. But I want to live. I want to be a mother. I want to have this child.” This is a crucial moment because it highlights the fundamental thing that separates Mary from Michael and Toller. The difference between her and them is not that they know something she doesn’t, nor is it that they have some values (about the sanctity of the earth of the stewardship of God’s creation), but that she wants to live and they don’t. It is because she has not lost faith in the notion that one can continue to live (and bring forth life) even in a world that is doomed.
The very same question can be asked about why we, the audience, and, more broadly speaking, people who are aware of the same facts that Toller and Michael are aware of, aren’t lead down the same nihilistic route. And the answer is likely to be the same: we want to live and we still want to pursue a life even in a world bent on destroying itself. We might not have this belief because we want to have children or because we have some kind of naïve hope about the radical possibility of turning things around—our concerns might be much more local (a meaningful job, a good group of friends, a caring family, etc.). Regardless, for the vast majority of viewers and the vast majority of people in general, despair has simply not set in and the world still makes sense. This is not the case for Michael and Toller.
If all this is true, then it’s hard to see how the central problem of the film could be about climate change. Climate catastrophe is, of course, a theme in the movie, but it is incidentally so—I’m confident that with a few writing changes it could have just as easily been about global poverty, racial injustice, war, and so on. What keeps the whole thing together is primarily the theme of despair and alienation.
Self Destruction and Despair
All that being said, I think there is one dimension along which the themes of climate disaster is especially important to the main theme of despair, but it will take me a bit to develop the point.
To start, consider the psychological progression that we see in each of the two men. Michael, as we know, is someone who had undergone a radical transformation from a passionate activist to an empty husk of a man. In describing him, Mary says:
He was absent. He was becoming someone I didn’t know. Even before I was pregnant. He was so full of anger.
The cause of this transformation, we can assume, has something to do with his increasing belief that time is running out to save the planet and that as an individual he is powerless to stop it.We also know that his transformation is accompanied by an increasing radicalism that's tied to his attempt to do something. We see this clearly by virtue of the fact that he was sent to prison for his activism, quite clearly implying that he had become militant and had taken part of some kind of direct action.
As discussed above, however, by the time he meets with Toller, Michael has already transitioned from militant action to martyrdom in what I’ve claimed is his attempt to restore some meaning in his life through having a particular death. As such, his choice of martyrdom is also one last attempt for him to assert his agency as someone who can make some impact in the world: he can restores meaning to his life and the projects that he’s involved in by exercising his will and dying for a cause. Crucially, however, Michael doesn’t just plan on dying, but dying by blowing himself up with a suicide vest.
This is an important point: at this point in his transformation Michael’s despair, although fueled by an internal drive to assert his will, is still aimed outward. It is telling that he wants to literally blow up, to be noticed, to draw attention to himself in this final act, to have people question why he did what he did and by doing so to propagandize through his deed. He doesn’t choose a hunger strike, nor does he go back to organizing with the group he was part of before he went to prison—he wants to do something big as an individual.
When Mary finds Michael’s suicide vest she calls Toller who takes it from the garage to his house on the church grounds in order to prevent Michael from going through with his plan. Michael, of course, puts the pieces together, realizes what’s happened, and texts Toller to meet him on a trail somewhere in the wilderness. When Toller shows up, he finds that Michael has shot himself and arranged it so that Toller is the one who finds his body.
Notice how the trajectory in his despair has changed. Having realized that he can’t blow himself up because Mary and Toller had taken his vest, Michael turns his will inward and now directs it at himself. Rather than martyring himself with a bomb and quite literally, spreading himself outward, he has taken the gun and pointed it inward. His death, of course, accomplishes nothing and despite the fact that Michael attempts to propagandize with it and bring attention to the nearby polluted area, his death doesn’t affect anyone but Mary and Toller.The trajectory, then, is something like this: faith, despair, an attempt to resolve the despair by affecting others with one’s death (a kind of externalization), and finally, a final and pitiful attempt to resolve the despair by turning inward and only destroying the body.
The first interesting thing to notice here is that there’s a similar parallel that is present in Toller as well. I believe we can safely assume that before the death of his son, Toller had faith—not only in the literal sense of being able to pray, but also in the metaphorical sense that he was still optimistic and felt like there was a purpose in his life. After Joseph’s death, he falls into despair that is in no small part driven by his own inability to do anything to fix that despair. Eventually, he is “infected” by Michael’s proposed solution to despair, and he too puts on the suicide vest and plans to martyr himself as a final act of protest against the unwillingness of the Church to take its mission seriously. Like Michael, Toller’s initial attempt is an attempt to resolve the despair through externalizing it and it is implied that he will do so by blowing himself up at the consecration of the church.
Like Michael, he too is stopped by Mary. Despite the fact that Toller is perfectly willing to kill any number of innocent men, women, and children who might be in attendance, he simply cannot bring himself to kill Mary and her baby. Frustrated, he takes off his vest, wraps his torso in barbed wire, puts on his vestments, and pours himself a cup of drain cleaner with the intention of drinking it. I’ll return to this scene and its interpretation in the last section of this essay, but it’s enough for us to notice that regardless of how it’s read, the trajectory still follows Michael’s own. Having been prevented from resolving his despair externally, he turns it on himself, mutilating his body and choosing an especially gruesome way to do so.On the assumption that he goes through with his plan, it's reasonable to think that Toller's suicide, like Michael's, will not be a brave assertion of the will, but a pitiful spectacle.
One final parallel is worth mentioning before I make my point: namely, there’s a notable parallel in the movie between the care (or lack thereof) for the body and care for the Earth. This is perhaps most obvious during the fantastic “Magical Mystery Tour” scene. Briefly, this is the scene in which Mary and Toller recrate a game that she and Michael used to play in which they would get high and cover as much of each others’ bodies as they could, syncing their breathing and eyesight. Quite clearly, the purpose of that activity is to feel embodied and to feel the the other as a body. While Toller and Mary play the game, we see them float up off the floor and as they rotate, we see them fly over a series of beautiful landscapes that are ultimately replaces by horrible scenes of pollution and environmental destruction. It’s a beautiful scene, and I read it as drawing a clear parallel between the body and the Earth and implying that what is being done to the Earth is a kind of damage to our collective body.
Okay, but what does all of this have to do with climate change being a fitting way of developing the theme of despair. Here’s the long-awaited payoff. Simply put, using the parallel between the Earth and the body, and taking note of the trajectories that Michael and Toller take in the development of their despair, we can say the following: the destruction of the Earth is our collective attempt to resolve our collective despair, turned inward. Michael’s despair and suicide is to Toller’s despair and suicide is to our collective despair and (ongoing suicide).
Put even simpler, we are collectively in the process of drinking the drain cleaner.Furthermore, working backwards, we can say that we are doing this because the world has been rendered absurd, because we have become alienated, and because we find ourselves at the whims of forces that we cannot control.
In this sense, climate catastrophe is explained in terms of despair and not the other way around.
If this reading is correct, one final question remains: what is the cause of our collective despair? Here, I can imagine a multiplicity of answers, but I’m particularly drawn to (what else but) the Death of God, which is just to say, the problem of modernity. By this I don’t mean to imply anything like an idealization of the past or a longing for a return to a time when people really believed. I’m not a theist in any sense of the word. Following Nietzsche, the problem with modernity is not that we need to return to tradition—God is dead, you guys, you can’t bring him back!—but rather that we still pretend that he’s around while living in a world that is completely disconnected with that kind of pretense. As such, the problem is not that of a loss of tradition, faith, family, or whatever: it’s a problem of there being nothing else in the wings to fill that gap.
Marx fills in the rest: the productive forces of capitalism put to the fire all previous traditional ways of organizing society.In their place, it has left nothing than “the individual,” homo economicus, the consumer who is completely alienated and completely ineffectual in asserting their will against the reified forces of the market. It is this condition that afflicts us, it is because we are so afflicted that we are in despair, and it is because we are in despair that we continue to destroy our body (i.e., the Earth). The solution is not, of course, to return to tradition, superstitions, or to resort to mystification—none of these things stopped modernity in the first place, why would we think they can do anything now that it’s here? Rather, it is to find a new way out and through.
But as the fate of Michael and Toller show, success is by no means guaranteed and we may very well destroy ourselves while waiting for salvation from without.
Speaking of which…
The Final Scene: Travis Bickle Revisited
To return back to the film, right after Toller wraps himself in barbed wire and sets himself to drink the Drano, the film takes a surprising turn when Mary walks into Toller’s house, interrupting him. Upon seeing her, he drops the glass, runs over to her, and the two exchange a long and passionate kiss before the screen cuts to black.
It is a shocking end to the film in part because, if taken literally, it is incredibly unrealistic. In the first place, the “floating scene” notwithstanding, the relationship between the two main characters is not a sexual one, and certainly not one in which both of the characters exhibit the kind of longing that would make that kiss make sense. We know that Toller cares for Mary, and we might expect that he has sexual feelings for her, but his longing for her is, I believe, best seen as one stemming from his profound loneliness and isolation, and not from a kind of romantic desire that the scene implies.
At the same time, we know that Mary sees Toller as someone who can help her and who frequently does help her, but I don’t see her as showing any romantic feelings towards him, and certainly not ones that would explain the passion in the kiss. On the whole, Mary is a rather cold and almost ethereal character, both in relation to her husband and in relation to Toller. This is not to say that Mary is uncaring towards either man—indeed, it’s she who goes to Toller to get help for Michael—but rather that she is not like them. One gets the impression that she can ultimately cope with the tragedies in her life and survive. As such, I think it makes more sense to think that she sees Toller not as a romantic interest, but as a spiritual guide; the love she has for him is the love of agape, not eros.
So, what is the meaning of the kiss? What is the meaning of this last scene?
I believe the key to understanding the scene is found in one of Toller’s previous narrations in which he ruminates over Michael’s suicide. He asks: “What is one’s last thought as you pull the trigger? “There goes my head” or “Jesus watch over me?” Or neither?” The kiss is the visual answer to that question for Toller. Specifically, his last thought before he drinks the poison is of the kind of hope-against-hope, a deus-ex-machina lover that bursts into the scene at the last moment before catastrophe and inexplicably, impossibly, makes everything whole. At that moment, Toller is no longer alone, and not because he has found someone who has come to see the world as he does, but because she, the other, has managed to help him see it as she does. Not only does Mary symbolize the physical other who can save him, she also symbolizes the spiritual other—the Virgin Mother, pregnant with the Savior, who can come to take him back into the fold and let him pray again. As such, she holds the promise both physical/secular and spiritual salvation.
Nevertheless, I believe in the end the kiss is the groundless fantasy of how theoretically easy it would be to stop what has already been set in motion, or of how easily one can be given a reason to live.But that’s all it is—the last thought before you pull the trigger. Then blackness.
In this respect, the scene echoes the fate of Travis Bickle (Schrader also co-wrote Taxi Driver with Scorsese) who, much like Toller, is also a profoundly desperate and lonely man. At the end of Taxi Driver we also get a similarly puzzling final scenein which things seem to magically turn around for Bickle. There, we not only see him survive being shot multiple times and recover from a coma, but also see him heralded as a hero for the multiple murders he committed. It is a deeply implausible ending if taken literally, but one which makes sense completely if interpreted as the final thoughts of a dying man.
In this sense, and with no offense to Schrader intended, I think First Reformed is just a very, very good contemporary version of Taxi Driver. I bring this up only in relation to my opening comments: just as Taxi Driver isn’t a movie about crime, so First Reformed isn’t a movie about climate change. Of course, both crime and climate change are respectively relevant, so it’s also not true that both of those movies aren’t about those things, but I think these moral considerations and the strength with which both characters feel their compulsion only serve as the background against which the movie develops. Instead, I think both movies are psychological portraits of despair, alienation, and ultimately, impotent bodily disintegration in the face of anonymous totalizing forces.
A real bummer, I know. But, man, what a film!
It’s been a while since I’ve published anything on here. In fact, I got an email from substack that I hadn’t written anything in four months and that I should do something about that. That’s only half-true—there are about 15 drafts of posts that I started and put aside for various reasons. So, Substack, I’ve been writing, it’s just all bad writing!
The names of the characters are, of course, not incidental. A “toller” is someone who rings a church bell and who, by that virtue, summons people to hear the word of God; Mary is the Mother of Jesus, who has conceived him through immaculate conception and who holds a special place in Christian theology; and Michael is a reference to the Archangel Michael, who is not only God’s main general (i.e., a militant and commited figure) but is also the one who escorts the departed souls of Christians into heaven (i.e., he’s the angel of death). Mary and Michael’s last name is also “Mensana” which is obviously a play on “mens sana en corpore sano,” the latin for “a healthy mind in a healthy body.”
One can also read this as an example of the phenomenon that Camus discusses in the Myth of Sisyphus—one day one is simply sick with the absurd. It doesn’t matter what triggers this sickness, nor would tracking down the cause do anything for the patient. One either persists and finds a way to cope or one commits suicide.
A chef who has lost his sense of smell!
See, my use of that phrase was intentional! Also, I got all quotes from an online version of the screenplay because it’s faster to pull quotes from when writing: https://janela.com.br/textos/oscar-2019-screenplays/first-reformed-screenplay-2018.pdf
I talk about this in much more detail in my dissertation, but it’s nice to see it illustrated in places that aren’t that cursed document.
Of course, the fact that the world makes sense to us today is no guarantee that it will tomorrow. Consider what Camus says in The Myth of Sisyphus:
Suicide has never been dealt with except as a social phenomenon. On the contrary, we are concerned here, at the outset, with the relationship between individual thought and suicide. An act like this is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art. The man himself is ignorant of it. One evening he pulls the trigger or jumps. Of an apartment-building manager who had killed himself I was told that he had lost his daughter five years before, that he had changed greatly since, and that that experience had "undermined" him. A more exact word cannot be imagined. Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined. Society has but little connection with such beginnings. The worm is in man's heart. That is where it must be sought. One must follow and understand this fatal game that leads from lucidity in the face of existence to flight from light…
…But one day the "why" arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement. "Begins"—this is important. Weariness comes at the end of the acts of a mechanical life, but at the same time it inaugurates the impulse of consciousness. It awakens consciousness and provokes what follows. What follows is the gradual return into the chain or it is the definitive awakening. At the end of the awakening comes, in time, the consequence: suicide or recovery.
It is, of course, possible that something also changed him while in prison, but if so, we don’t know what. Mary’s remark that he was already angry before her pregnancy suggests that the transformation started before he went to prison. The timeline here is interesting, though, since we don’t know when Mary got pregnant. There’s an immaculate conception/infidelity way of reading the relationship here, but it’s getting into real fringe territory.
The fact that he wants Toller to find his body is also very important because in doing so (and in making Toller the executor of his last will and testament), he is signaling to him that he is holding him responsible. It’s almost as if he’s saying “look what you made me do—now it’s your turn to deal with it.”
I haven’t looked too much into it, but suicide by drain cleaner is supposed to be a really, really bad way to go.
And, of course, the fact that Toller chooses to die by chemicals is also not incidental.
The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers.
The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.
Ch. 1 of the Communist Manifesto
One can read this as an inverted Flannery O’Conner type of story: Providence could interfere at any moment (it just doesn’t). One can also read it in the same way that I read The VVitch. Like the names of the characters, the fact that both movies are about New England Protestantism is not incidental, of course.
The same is also true for another Schrader/Scorsese film: The Last Temptation of Christ. Do you see a theme here?
In that respect, both Taxi Driver and First Reformed are similar to Lynch’s Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, both of which are, I believe, best read as failed attempts of the psyche to rationalize profound personal guilt.
I had forgotten about how heavily imbued the word "undermined" is in _Myth of Sisyphus_. Damn damn, thanks for sparking that memory! Excellent breakdown of this one; I hadn't thought of it as a distant twin of _Taxi Driver_ but sheesh that makes so much sense! I hated the ending of this. If you ever get around to Saint Maud, I'd love to hear your thoughts on how it handles despair (or in its specific case, trauma?) in a nearly completely opposite treatment.