Spoilers for First Reformed follow.
Early on in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, a priest and a believer talk the end of the world. The believer, Michael, sees no future for the human race. “Opportunistic diseases, anarchy, martial law,” he mutters, his greying head bowed. “You will live to see this.”
None of what he says is fantasy. Even the conservative politicians around the world who wake up every morning and argue against best science – even they know what is coming. It is, by now, almost inevitable. Just two years ago, scientists working away at the suitably named Cape Grim in Tasmania measured 400 ppm of Co2 in the atmosphere. A threshold had been crossed. “It’s a bit sooner than we expected,” a scientist named Paul Krummel nervously told Fairfax at the time.
That’s how it’s been ever since: our worst nightmares are coming true, and faster than we can keep up with them. Endemic species are going extinct en masse, so much quicker than predictions suggested they might. The acidification of the ocean is snowballing out of our control. Even modest estimates suggest that the air might be poisonous within a generation.
Watch the trailer for First Reformed here:
We can’t undo any of this. And it will get worse. “We are now closer to the risk of crossing thresholds or tipping points, which are large features of [a] climate system prone to abrupt, irreversible change when a critical threshold level of temperature rise is reached,” Dr Martin Rice, the head of research for the Climate Council, told the BRAG earlier this year. “The melting of the Greenland ice sheet would eventually raise sea level by approximately seven metres. That would commit humanity to continuously rising sea levels for centuries.”
Who would want to bring a child into such a world? Who would condemn their flesh and blood to a warming earth without a future, ravaged by disease and decimated food supply lines? Not Michael. “Can God forgive us for what we’ve done to this world?” he asks the priest, Father Toller. His eyes imply he already knows the answer.
But Toller is not so sure. He argues against Michael at every point, his eyes flashing. “Who can know the mind of God?” he muses. The grieving Toller, his son dead, dependent on the spirits he sips alone, late at night, seems suddenly invigorated. For the first time in years, he is alive. And it is the end of the world that has done it to him.
Six years ago, I was sitting in a wide, carpeted room in a psychiatrist’s office, sipping cheap coffee and telling a huddle of strangers about my drinking problem. I was drunk, even then. My heart wasn’t really in the story. Like so many addicts, I’d grown very good at telling the tale as it was meant to be told; how I was ashamed of my actions; how I’d hurt the people around me. The other addicts looked at the floor and waited their turn to speak.
When I was done, the psych asked if anyone had anything to say to me; any words of advice. A big burly man with a thick moustache sitting across from me grumbled a little, and shifted in his seat.
“I guess,” he said. “I guess my question is: don’t you want to live?”
Watch Paul Schrader talk First Reformed:
It was a long time ago, and alcohol wrecks your memory, so I don’t really remember exactly what happened next. I think the psych, embarrassed, moved us on. I do know I didn’t say anything to the man. I think I just stared at the floor.
I did have an answer, though. And the answer was surprising to me. It was yes. I did want to live. Despite everything, I did want to keep going. I wanted to grow old. I wanted to have kids. I wanted to keep living my life. And it was that realisation that, slowly, day by day, led me on a shaky path to sobriety.
A realisation like that wasn’t built to survive our current news cycle. Each day, the more I read, the less sensible it seems to stay sober. What’s the point? You might abstain from drugs or drink in order to live a long, comfortable life. But nothing is suggesting that the rest of our lives will be long or comfortable. Everything is suggesting that we will live through collapse, days marked by the destruction of old comforts and the establishment of fresh pains.
So what’s the point? It seems harder and harder to glean. Recently I worked out that I could start drinking in earnest again now, and die around the same time as the planet.
Toller never becomes hopeful, exactly. He has no reason to. After all, whatever hope might be able to do, it can’t preserve the arctic shelf, or stop the conversion of the Amazon rainforest to savanna. Instead, Toller becomes committed. After Michael the believer takes off the top of his own head with a shotgun, Toller revives the man’s cause, planning a domestic terrorist attack that he hopes will take out one of the biggest polluters in the States.
But, as with so much climate activism, it’s a symbolic act, not a practical one. Taking out one man will do nothing – there will be so many others to take his place. Real change – the only kind of change that will be able to avert the fast-approaching climate apocalypse – requires more than protests, and marches, and laws. More, even, than murder. It requires either a revolution so drastic as to be hitherto unseen in the history of the human race, or it requires a mass die-off of the human race.
“Humans are like any other plague animal,” John Gray once wrote. “They cannot destroy the Earth, but they can easily wreck the environment that sustains them …. It is likely that disseminated primatemaia [a plague of people] will be cured by a large-scale decline in human numbers.”
Toller has no real reason to keep living. But he does.
Maybe years ago we could have averted all this. We can’t anymore. Sobriety won’t change anything; suicide vests won’t change anything; activism won’t change anything. Toller knows this. It’s why, when his planned attack is undone by chance, he turns his violence onto himself. He, after all, is the carrier of climate change’s original sin: the sin of being born, of being another mouth on a planet being eaten.
I could start drinking in earnest again now, and die around the same time as the planet. I won’t though. Or at least, I don’t think I will. Human beings have this raging, unceasing desire to go on. Of hoping when there is no reason to hope. Samuel Beckett wrote about that. “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
Toller has no real reason to keep living. But he does. He lives because he is a machine bred to do exactly that. The film doesn’t end on act of heroism, or an act of defeat. It ends on a creature going on when it can’t – when it shouldn’t. There is poetry in that too.
First Reformed is playing in an exclusive run at the Golden Age.