Jack Pickering writes about the value and limitations of two films, First Reformed and Woman at War, from an emerging genre of environmentalist lone warrior films. Content Note: mention of self-harm and suicide.
The films First Reformed (2017) and Woman at War (2018) are both intensely enjoyable films for those concerned with the current environmental crisis. When viewed in tandem, some important threads can be picked up about representations of ‘toxic masculinity’ and what could be called ‘liberal femininity’ in the context of environmental politics. Both films are about environmental ‘lone wolves’, but are also concerned with parenthood and the creation of new life – and both offer warnings for those thinking about more radical environmental direct action.
First Reformed, written and directed by Paul Schrader, is led by a character called Toller, the troubled pastor of a historic church in New York state that is funded by a larger evangelist organisation. Toller struggles with his position, alcoholism, and the death of his son in the Iraq War. He is asked to provide counsel to a radical environmentalist who has asked his wife to have an abortion due to the nature of the world they would be bringing a child into. Toller is challenged by his beliefs, but when the environmentalist later commits suicide, Toller finds sympathy with his cause. As a result, Toller increasingly comes into conflict with the financial backers of the organisation that funds his church, who are major local polluters. In the climax of the film, Toller, who is also suffering from suspected bowel cancer, deals with his crisis of faith by planning to use a suicide vest produced by the environmentalist to destroy the church and its occupants during an anniversary celebration attended by the organisation’s polluting financial backers. At the last minute he does not go through with this, and instead self-flagellates and finds solace in the ambiguous spiritual and personal relationship he has developed with the wife of the dead environmentalist.
First Reformed is tightly constructed and well-filmed, and Ethan Hawke plays the lead character well. The slow, creeping dread of environmental horror is communicated indirectly through subtle choices of setting and cinematography. The heaviness of the film builds throughout to a largely allegorical ending, meaning that it is difficult to clearly identify and comment on matters other than the conflicts between personal faith and organised religion, the complicity of organised religion in environmental crises, and the unreachability of grief. Due to the intense focus on these elements, it took me until afterwards to think through other issues with the film and its construction. It provides an uncompromising look at environmental issues from the somewhat neglected perspective of religion and spirituality, but it does so from a very individualistic and masculinist perspective rooted in a particular form of Christianity. Throughout the film, and afterwards, I found myself asking why it was that Schrader, as writer and director, chose to have the characters unable to express or work with their grief or attempt to hold anyone accountable, and why it was that it took a woman’s love to stop a terrorist attack and/or self-flagellation. As a result of these particular choices, First Reformed seems to both condemn and celebrate isolated male suffering, using women and personal intimacy as the cosmic salvation from grief, and the environment as the tragic, passive backdrop to a personal crisis of faith. Within the world presented by the film, there appears to be no alternative to a particularly toxic view of masculine pain and grief, which can only be eased by the love of a woman. No collective religious response to concern for the environment appears possible.
In contrast, Woman at War is noticeably lighter in tone yet ultimately no less serious as a film. Set in Iceland, it concerns the choir-leader and saboteur Halla, who has been sabotaging power lines leading into an aluminium processing centre. The film follows her plans to scale up her activism in the face of increasing police repression and political condemnation, while she reconciles this activity with her successful application to adopt a child from Ukraine. An attempt to destroy an electricity pylon puts Halla on the run across the Icelandic landscape, and she receives help from a sympathetic farmer and her well-meaning, yoga-teaching sister, eventually boarding the plane that will take her to pick up the child. At the end of the film, Halla is returning to the airport in Ukraine with her adopted child when a flood abruptly stops the engine of their coach. Told to disembark, Halla wades off into the distance with the child on her back as military helicopters fly overhead.
Woman at War is expertly scored by a three-man band and a Ukrainian folk choir that appear on the screen as the characters interact and the narrative unfolds. It is a particularly joyful and unconventional part of this film which resonates with the strange joys that the various characters find in their acts of sabotage and self-sacrifice. Even the repeated wrongful arrest of a passing cycle-tourist, who the Icelandic media insinuate to be a foreign radical, demonstrates the dark humour woven throughout this film.
Through the cinematography, the film draws attention to the beauty of seemingly ‘untouched’ nature, without addressing the significant role of human involvement in shaping even seemingly natural landscapes. Together with the film’s focus on heroic acts of individual direct action, personal risk and the specific wording of the manifesto that Halla releases mid-film, the agenda of the protagonist seems to edge towards a regressive view of nature that celebrates untouched landscapes rather than the more complex possibility of positive and mutually beneficial relationships between people and ecologies. This invokes the increasingly relevant spectre of eco-fascist approaches to the environment, which tend to consider landscapes as healthier without people. This is contrary to recent scientific developments in this field and goes against the increasing recognition given to indigenous land management practices.
Woman at War is lightly satirical of its protagonist, however, and it preaches caution about the threats posed from simplistic understandings of nature and direct action. I would suggest tentatively that it also addresses the lack of distance between liberal and fascist conceptions of the human-environment relationship, and the easy movement between these positions.
As with First Reformed, the ending of Woman at War provides a particular vantage point from which to understand the film as a whole. In this case, it provides a more useful commentary. Halla trudges through floodwaters into the distance, now just one of many others caught out on the coach. It is a somewhat dark turn, but as opposed to Schrader’s film, it coherently responds to the issue of parenting in a warming, disrupted world. It disrupts liberal assumptions that the global north will be able to maintain distance from the effects of climate change, or any hopes that individual acts of spectacular direct action will effect meaningful change. More importantly, the closure provided by the final scene seems to imply that a damaged common world can only be survived by common struggle. After all, despite her best efforts, Halla and her adopted daughter are left to trudge through waist-deep water with the rest of the locals. Woman at War, in its general lightness, gestures towards satire, and makes space for the viewer to think about solidarity and the possibility of collective forms of action alongside parenthood.
In dealing with acts of ‘lone-wolf’, environmentally-motivated sabotage, the two films reviewed here are not alone, as they are notably joined by Kelly Reichardt’s minimalist film Night Moves, which is similarly engaging yet troubling along the same axes. As full-throated rejections of lone-wolf style direct action and/or eco-terrorism/sabotage, both of these films are useful for left-wing movements, as well as exploring some interesting angles on gender roles. The shared core of these films is a concern for the challenges of parenthood in a warming world, but Woman at War does much more work towards communicating a representation of parenthood that could be potentially positive and productive within broader attempts towards solidarity.