Environment and Religion in First Reformed

In Paul Schrader’s 2018 First Reformed, violence coexists with despair, punishment, and guilt. However, even in the film’s most brutal violence, hope is nearby. Toller (Ethan Hawke), intending to bomb churchgoers with a suicide vest on the 250th anniversary of the First Reformed Church, represents the way in which the film blends violence and hope in its final scene. His act of violence is a form of punishment to himself, the church, and indifference. He denounces “Religion” (institutionalized) for its apathy and plays “God;” he has hundreds of lives in his hands at the push of a button. Released during a time of increasingly serious climate catastrophes, Schrader seamlessly uses religious allegory and natural imagery to subvert expectations; he centers the environment through an unexpected, theologically intense, and zealous framing.

However, he stops himself when he sees Mary (Amanda Seyfried), the widow of the suicidal environmentalist, Michael (Philip Ettinger), who made the vest attending the anniversary. Interestingly, Mary shares similarities to the Virgin Mary: she is pregnant without having sex, experiences the brutal death of a loved one, and yet holds onto her faith for a brighter future. Even in her darkest moments, she reflects on the good memories shared with Michael:

“He listened. He was kind. We did something we called the Magical Mystery Tour. It sounds silly. We’d share a joint, then we would lie on top of each other, fully clothed. Try to get as much body-to-body contact as possible. He also called it the 80% Solution. Hands out, look each right into the eyes. Then move our eyes in unison, right, left, right, left. And breathe in rhythm.”

So, when Toller sees Mary walk into the church, he removes the vest and instead chooses to wrap the barbed wire around himself, resembling Jesus’s crown of thorns, in which he finds a dead rabbit. Rather than committing an act of terrorism, Toller punishes himself. His environmental inaction is his own to blame, and he realizes the extremity of his actions through Mary’s appearance. She steps into the corridor, and Toller shatters his glass of Drano. They embrace as the wire stabs Toller deeper. For the first time in the film, the camera spins around the two, indicating a sacred moment. Mary is Toller’s hope, but hope cannot exist without despair, as he states at the beginning of the film: 

“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.”

Whether they manifest as violence and love, hope and despair, or punishment and indulgence, Toller and Mary symbolize life. Toller finds faith in Mary, rather the church itself. 

If so, Nature is Toller’s monotheistic “God” figure – it provides his hope and despair. Toller replaces his faith in Christianity with Nature after his discussion with Mary’s late husband. He begins fixating on ecological crises by executing Michael’s will and maintaining the Church’s garden religiously. When he finds a dead rabbit in the graveyard’s fence, he carefully untangles its body from the barbed wire. Toller sees himself as guilty for Nature’s suffering. In the Magical Mystery Tour scene, environmental imagery circles around Mary and Toller. As the camera focuses on Mary, the green screen shows pictures of lush, natural life, but pans to garbage and pollution as it moves toward Toller. Life, the environment, Toller, and Mary are all interconnected. Toller is pollution and despair, while Mary is greenery and hope. Hence, Toller believes that spiritual people should fight for the environment because “What we do to Nature matters not just instrumentally, in terms of how it does or does not meet human goals. Rather, just as theft, murder, and exploitation are wrong … so wanton, uncontrolled, and thoughtless environmental activity is wrong because of what it does to beings that are not people.” (Gottlieb)

Toller wraps the wire around his body for Nature. He desires to suffer, similarly to the rabbit, for the irreversible damage humanity has inflicted upon the environment. However, hope has an equal part in the conservation of Nature. When Mary embraces Toller, she symbolizes the importance of cautious optimism. Simply put, “Even if we cannot… have any confidence in success, we will live this way just because…it is the right thing to do and has some kind of beneficial effect: on our own souls for doing it, and on the world of life where we can save and love whatever we can.”

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