Movie screenshot of Ethan Hawke
Ethan Hawke as Pastor Ernst Toller in ‘First Reformed.’

First Reformed, Paul Schader’s new film starring Ethan Hawke, unequivocally meets the first criterion for a good cli-fi movie: it addresses climate change clearly and directly.

In an important early scene, viewers see, taped to a wall, a chart documenting the increase in average global temperature. On the computer screen of a laptop resting on a desk below the chart, they can see a video looping through a color-coded chronicle of that data mapped over the globe. And then they hear the main character, Pastor Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) discussing the consequences of those rising temperatures – sea-level rise, droughts, heat waves, extreme precipitation events, declining food production – with Michael, the husband of one of his parishioners and a parolee who had served time in a Canadian prison for his eco-activism.

First Reformed also meets the second criterion for a good cli-fi movie: it’s a solid piece of filmmaking. So say reviews offered by the Federalist, Fresh Air, New York Magazine, New York Times, Slate, Vanity Fair, Vox, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post, to cite just the most prominent national media. Writing in the Post, Ann Hornaday describes First Reformed as “a mesmerizing, austere drama of one man’s apocalyptic crisis of faith”; it “feels like the movie Paul Schrader was put on this planet to make.”

But for climate change communicators there is a third criterion for a good cli-fi movie: Does it promote effective public engagement with climate change?

Doing so is not so stringent as it sounds. A popular film panned by the critics could still meet this criterion provided it addressed climate change in a way that did not distort the science. After its theatrical run, more people might talk about climate change.

Conversely, however, a film praised by the critics might not meet this criterion if it badly distorted the science or if it dismissed, disparaged, or distorted concern for the problem. Public understanding of climate change, trust in climate scientists and policy-makers, and/or willingness to take action could be diminished by such a film.

How, then, does First Reformed fare on this last measure?

To answer this question, YCC enlisted the aid of Leslie Davenport, a practicing psychotherapist and climate activist who has served on several Red Cross Disaster Mental Health Teams. She is also the author of Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change: A Clinician’s Guide (2017).

Davenport agreed to see the movie and then respond to questions via e-mail. (“Wow,” was how she summed up her reaction in the e-mail she sent immediately after seeing it.)

The psychology of climate change

In her work, Davenport has identified psychological factors that affect how humans respond to climate change under different conditions and circumstances. For example, psychology plays several different roles in the denial of climate change, from passive avoidance to active, ideological, resistance. Once one accepts the reality and implications of climate change, however, s/he may need to grieve for what will be lost. And if people experience a climate-related disaster – hurricane, rain bomb, drought, wildfire, or a killing heatwave – they may suffer trauma and the stresses that compound afterwards. Finally, Davenport argues, coming to terms with climate change requires a re-thinking, and re-feeling, of one’s relationship with the natural world.

For work on these different psychological levels and problems, Davenport has developed or revised practices therapists can use to promote emotional resilience in the face of climate change: one-on-one counseling, group counseling, art therapy, journaling, physical exercises, and mindfulness training.

Ironically, but perhaps not surprising given the overlap between pastoral work and counseling, some of these practices drive the plot in First Reformed – but not toward resilience.

To see how these factors play out, however, the plot must first be sketched out.

Spoiler Alert: The following deep-dive discussion of the film reveals key plot points.

The dark nights of Pastor Toller’s soul

The challenge that Schrader sets for himself and his lead actor is formidable: Convince viewers that the austere but considerate pastor they meet in the opening scenes has become, by the end of the movie, an eco-avenger capable of blowing himself up in his historic upstate New York church – a church filled to capacity with well-wishers there to celebrate its re-consecration on the 250th anniversary of its founding.

The first steps down the path toward that planned – but not executed – act of eco-terrorism are taken with Michael, the man with whom Toller reviews the facts of climate change. Michael’s wife Mary had arranged that meeting, distressed that her husband was pressuring her to abort the baby already visibly swelling her belly.

“How do you sanction bringing [a child] into this world?” Michael asks Toller after they have considered how climate will alter the planet by 2050.

“This isn’t about Mary or your baby,” Toller replies, “It’s about you, about your despair.”

Toller then shares some of his own losses. When he still served as an Army chaplain, he had persuaded his son to enlist in the Army. When their son was killed in Iraq, Toller’s wife left him. “Courage is the answer to despair,” he says after finishing his story, “reason is useless.”

“But can God forgive for what we’ve done to the world?” Michael asks in his closing response.

Later that night, writing by candlelight in a journal he has just started as a way to examine his life, and with a half-finished bottle of bourbon at his elbow, Toller revisits his conversation with Michael: “I felt like I was Jacob, wrestling with the angel all night long. It was thrilling.” A hook has been set in his soul.

The meeting with Michael proves fateful for Toller. The next day, Mary will call Toller when she finds a suicide vest hidden among Michael’s tools in their garage; Toller will take the vest for safekeeping. Then, the following day, Michael will kill himself after arranging for Toller to discover his body and after leaving instructions for Toller regarding his memorial service. And that memorial service, at a toxic waste site on the Hudson River, will introduce Toller to one of the area’s biggest polluters, Balq Industries, whose CEO is one of the major contributors to the megachurch, Abundant Life, that underwrites his position at First Reformed.

At Abundant Life, meanwhile, Toller’s colleagues and supervisor are worried about his physical and mental health. They know about his grief; they hired him after Toller retired from the military in the aftermath of his son’s death. And now they know, from the discarded bottles in First Reformed’s trash bins, that he is drinking. “You’re always in the Garden [of Gethsemane],” the senior pastor tells him, “for you every hour is the darkest hour.” He promises Toller that Abundant Life will help him find a recovery program after they get through the re-consecration. Toller thanks the senior pastor while in his office but bristles at night when he responds to these interventions in his journal.

Toller now has the means, a suicide vest, and the beginnings of a motive, retaliation against Balq Industries. And his ability to draw clear moral lines is steadily degrading under the weight of new guilt, old grief, alienation from his colleagues at Abundant Life, and isolation at First Reformed. There is also the stomach ailment he is trying to ignore – and his increasing consumption of alcohol. In one memorable scene, noted by several reviewers, Toller pours Pepto Bismol directly into his glass of bourbon.

Mindfulness with Mary

Slowing but not stopping Toller’s descent are the times he spends with Mary. He helps her pack up Michael’s things, including his computer, so that she is not constantly reminded of his death. At her request, he joins her on a bicycle ride through a nearby park. Toller revels in the simple pleasure of reconnecting with his body, with the natural world, and with his younger self.

When Mary unexpectedly shows up at his residence late one night, agitated and unable to sleep, Toller agrees to play Michael’s part in an exercise that had always calmed and centered her. Fully clothed, he lies on the floor, spread-eagled; still wearing her overcoat, she then lies on top of him, matching the positions of his legs and arms, placing her palms on his. Silently, looking into each other’s eyes, they synchronize – and slow – their breathing.

Schrader makes this moment a transcendental experience for Toller. He experiences himself floating above the world, carried by the wind over a succession of exquisite natural landscapes. But when he breaks his connection with Mary, he begins to fall back to Earth, over mountains of tires, rivers choked with plastic debris, clear-cut forests, and, finally, the toxic waste site where they had scattered Michael’s ashes. Toller cannot manage his despair by himself, Schrader seems to say with this scene, but life still pulses within him.

Actor Ethan Hawke, as pastor in ‘First Reformed,’ copes with mounting stresses from climate change concerns.

A few days later, Toller makes a final visit to Mary’s house. She has packed what she needs for her extended stay with her sister and brother-in-law in Buffalo, where she has decided she will have her baby. When she promises Toller that she will return for the re-consecration of First Reformed, he becomes agitated. He tries to say, nonchalantly, that she needn’t bother, but it’s clear he doesn’t want her there. Confused, she agrees to stay away.

On the day of the service, however, looking at the entrance to the church from one of the windows of his residence, Toller spies Mary walking up the steps. This triggers a manic display of energy, both in Toller and the film itself. The original plan, with the suicide vest, is abandoned. Instead Schrader has Toller improvise a profane imitation of Christ’s suffering, one that will harm only him. But that plan, too, is disrupted when Mary lets herself into Toller’s quarters. Toller chooses life.

The film ends with romantic clichés. Toller and Mary rush into each other’s arms. The camera swirls around them, and the music swells as they kiss each other passionately. But the spots of blood on Toller’s white robe remind viewers they’re not really watching that kind of movie. And then, abruptly, the credits roll.

What climate message in Toller’s tale?

Several critics have praised First Reformed as a masterpiece, but does it masterfully deliver a relevant message on climate change?

For Davenport the answer to this question varies with the audience.

For anyone already stressed by the prospects of climate change, or someone who has personally experienced an extreme weather event, First Reformed will likely be too much. “The film’s disturbing images and abrupt twists would not [promote the stability necessary for] emotional resilience.”

Conversely, for those unconcerned or even dismissive of climate change, First Reformed may even reinforce their dim view of those who are concerned. “It’s easy to see how [such] viewers could confirm their existing perspectives that environmental activists are ‘unstable nut jobs,’” people who simply attach “climate worries” to unresolved problems they already have.

But for those who are concerned but not overwhelmed, Davenport thinks First Reformed performs some useful work.

She found the film’s depiction of “Michael’s and Toller’s deep grief over what is happening with the climate, paired with the rising urgency from being surrounded by denial/disavowal/greed spot on.” In this way, she adds, First Reformed illustrates the warnings issued in the executive summary of The Psychological Effects of Global Warming on the United States: “global warming … will foster public trauma, depression, violence, alienation, substance abuse, suicide … and other mental health-related conditions.”

Davenport also believes the film credibly depicts how Toller’s previous trauma (the loss of his son and marriage), his addictive behavior, and his social isolation would shape his response to Michael’s cause and death: “I don’t think Toller had the internal or external resources to cope with the mounting stresses [created by his new engagement with climate change].” And without a careful, outside diagnosis of his condition and then sustained support for his recovery, Toller’s efforts at self-therapy (the journal) and self-medication only compound his problems.

Perhaps tellingly, Davenport also calls attention to the careful way Michael planned his death: “He gave thought to how his death could further the cause. His memorial site was a form of protest, and he arranged in advance for his environmental colleagues to document and publicize the small event.” Nothing in the film suggests Toller made similar preparations. Instead Toller appears to have been ensnared by Michael’s plans.

Summarizing her response, Davenport sees two possible benefits arising from First Reformed: “(1) that it increases awareness of the psychological costs of climate change, [costs that are] very real but not addressed sufficiently; (2) that it prompts people, whatever they decide about the film, to more actively invest in their own emotional resiliency in our increasingly stressful world.”

Along with Davenport’s analysis, consider that the peculiar mixture of the psychological and the religious in First Reformed is a signature of Schrader’s work, both as a screenwriter and a director. Schrader’s long-standing preoccupation with these concerns shaped the film much more than his engagement with climate change. (In an interview with Slate, Schrader expresses a fatalistic view of humanity’s future, which makes climate change just one more way humans must face the prospect of death, both individually and collectively.)

Perhaps this should be seen as a harbinger of things to come.

As climate change becomes an undeniable factor in contemporary life, more and more independent writers and directors – artists with personal visions rather than production companies with blockbuster franchises – will address climate change, with idiosyncratic results.

Often these works will be like the tags graffiti artists paint on buildings they claim for their territory; film artists will check off the climate change box. Occasionally, these works might comment meaningfully on the problem. And the possibility exists that an artist may transform the public’s understanding, as when a perspectival mural changes how we see the building itself.

With respect to climate change, First Reformed seems more than a tag but less than a transformational work of art. How much its psychological/religious commentary affects public discussion of climate change may depend on whether it wins any of the awards critics say it deserves.

Four weeks into its still-limited theatrical run, First Reformed has grossed less than $3 million at the box office. Clearly the glowing reviews have not created a mass audience for Schrader’s film. Golden Globe or Academy Award nominations/wins might.

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is the Yale Climate Connections books editor. He is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since...