Earth, Eden, and Doom: The Eco-Anxiety Driven Horror of Mother! & First Reformed
CW: suicide, rape, climate change induced despair
Spoilers for both mother! & First Reformed
Given that it’s been over 30 years since the first serious concerns about climate change were raised, and that we are now well into irreversible stages, it’s no surprise that we are experiencing ever growing rates of eco-anxiety. “Eco-anxiety” is a term coined by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) to describe “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” Both mother! and First Reformed, two horror adjacent (albeit one much more legible as horror than the other) films released in the late 2010s, draw on the very real situation of climate change to instill this fear of inevitable environmental doom in their audiences. What makes these films more interesting, together and on their own, is the ways in which they engage with Judeo-Christian mythology and faith in relation to the climate crisis.
The two films function in different ways but both seem to be genuinely interested in acting as forms of (ideally productive) horror inducing propaganda. First Reformed is much easier to read as a propaganda film as it remains grounded for most of its runtime and goes so far as to include statistics and scenes of the lead character performing research. mother!, on the other hand, is entirely allegorical, but the allegory is obvious enough (at least in regards to climate change) and the movie aims to elicit significant emotional and even physiological reactions in the way that it bombards the viewer with ever more cruelty.
First Reformed begins as an update of Bergman’s Winter Light as a pregnant woman comes to pastor Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) requesting that he counsel her despairing husband Michael. In Winter Light, the cause was the growing possibility of nuclear holocaust, but in First Reformed, Amanda Seyfried’s Mary worries for her husband’s despondency over impending climate catastrophe.
The scene of Toller and Michael’s conversation is horrifying. There is no threat of violence, nor is there any undercurrent of extreme discomfort, instead the conversation is awkward but honest, as the two are open with one another and genuinely kind. What makes the scene horrific is the content of the dialogue. Michael cites studies by the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research indicating that the Earth will experience mass drought, an ever growing number of climate refugees, greater instances of extreme weather, and (perhaps most impactful watching in the time of Covid) increases in epidemics. He points out that our current social structures “can’t bear the stress of multiple crises” and admits that his ideological impulses towards activism have given way to an acceptance that “the bad times, they will begin.”
Toller’s response to Michael is a well-intentioned but somewhat patronizing discussion of hope and despair. Toller notes that loss of hope has plagued humanity for its entire existence. He acknowledges that if Michael is right about the future “the only rational response is despair,” but seeks to make an argument for hope and faith. He argues that “courage is the solution to despair, reason provides no answers” and that we must hold onto hope and despair simultaneously to live. The conversation ends with Michael asking “Can God forgive us? For what we’ve done to this world?” to which Toller seems to honestly respond “I don’t know. Who can know the mind of God? But we can choose a righteous life,” highlighting his own belief, and requesting to meet again the next day.
But before they can meet again, Michael takes his own life.
The film is not a violent one, but it explicitly shows the gory aftermath of Michael’s suicide by shotgun, an image that would be at home in an extreme horror film and serves as damning evidence of the failure of Toller’s counsel in the face of Michael’s rational despair. The horror of their conversation has been rendered all too real, an immediate horror of flesh and blood, not a darkness on the horizon. In the aftermath of Michael’s suicide, Toller and Mary grow closer as Toller helps her with the arrangements for services, as well as removing some of Michael’s personal effects from their home. Among these items are Michael’s laptop, boxes of research materials, and a suicide bomb vest.
After taking these items, which he has promised to dispose of, Toller begins to go through the research that Michael compiled. It includes reports about the rapid acceleration of climate change. On the laptop, Toller finds information on the world’s most significant polluters including the local Balq Industries, the same corporation sponsoring the upcoming 250th anniversary celebration of the church that Toller pastors. Here the film flirts with a horror style as Toller sits in the dark, lit only by the blue light of the laptop. He does this twice, once as he goes through Michael’s documents and realizes that Michael intended to use the suicide vest to bomb Balq, and again when he begins to consider using the vest himself. In this second instance, he abruptly shuts the laptop after watching a few videos of suicide bombings, suddenly robbing the room of light altogether, the closest the film comes to using a jump scare.
Throughout the film, Lustmord’s score lends a palpable dread to the moments when Toller is alone, researching, learning, and journaling. The score is the most explicitly horror inspired piece of the film and while it is minimal, it does an effective job of mood setting. It lends a sense of an unavoidably dreadful conclusion to both the story that we are seeing in the film and humanity as a whole.
mother! by contrast has no score, instead only accentuating high pitched diegetic sounds like a fire alarm and the ringing of a metal lighter that has fallen. But mother! doesn’t need music to mark itself as a horror film. From the opening moments when mother (Jennifer Lawrence) walks around the seemingly empty house and opens the door to find that the house sits in an idyllic but isolated field, the film is using the language of horror. This sequence is shot handheld with extreme close ups of mother’s face so that the audience can identify with her confusion and fear before Him (Javier Bardem) appears and startles her in the first of a number of jump scares throughout the film.
mother! uses horror to provoke its audience into a reaction over human mistreatment of the Earth. The story is an undeniably overstuffed and not at all subtle allegory that essentially pits Him, a poet and creator figure, against mother, who is somehow simultaneously a character and the home that serves as the setting for the film. This identification of mother and the home begins early in the film when we see her feel the wall of the home that she is restoring, sensing a healthy, beating heart within it, and only becomes more apparent as the film goes on.
The events of mother! play out a bit like a highlight reel of Biblical stories and then a highlight reel of human atrocities throughout history, as more and more people force themselves into the home that mother has made (and is). The identification of mother and the home combined with the forced entry, makes the film an uncomfortably overt rape allegory. The rape of the Earth is not a new concept for discussions and understandings of environmental degradation, but mother! seeks to render this concept as visceral as possible for viewers. The film deploys classic horror filmmaking and plot points, like isolation, jump scares, chaotic violence, heavy use of shadow, literal bumps in the night, and of course home invasion, to attempt to bring the terror of an unstoppable assault to the audience who understands that mother and the home are stand ins for Earth.
Beyond the metaphor apparent in the structure of the story, the dialogue throughout the film elucidates this symbolic relationship between the home (and heroine) of the film and our home planet. Early in the film when the only guests are man (Ed Harris) and woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), woman asks mother about restoring the home: “isn’t this a lot harder than just starting fresh? … why didn’t you just build a new house?” and mother responds “well it’s his home.” When mother tells Him that she is kicking the couple out, he asks “where will they go?” Both of these pieces of dialogue clarify that there is only one home, only one place that humanity can exist. Later an old white man walks in on mother in the bathroom and excuses himself by stating he’s “just exploring.” By the end, when chaos erupts and adoring fans are literally ripping apart the home, mother asks one of them why and is told “proof we were here.”
It’s in this finale that the film abandons the growing tension model of horror and unleashes a barrage into the home and onto the audience. The film becomes the aforementioned highlight reel of atrocities: we see people placed in cages, sexual assault, seemingly political executions, and war all in the confines of the home and in rapid succession. What began as disregard for the home becomes violent chaos in which humanity destroys itself and the home. These scenes are difficult to stomach and in a moment that serves as the climax to this barrage, mother is brutally beaten for finally attempting to defend herself. The beating is disgusting, unnecessary, and disturbingly effective.
Which seems like exactly what the film wants (though that’s far from an excuse). It wants the audience to be disgusted at the way humans have treated the Earth, particularly settler and capitalist “explorers” who seek and demand ever more so that they can prove they were here. The film wants us to identify with the Earth character when she ends humanity by igniting an all consuming conflagration. mother destroys herself, the home, and everything inside it by going to the basement of the home and setting fire to an oil tank. mother and Him are the only ones who survive the fire and she asks “What are you?” He answers: “Me? I am I. You, you were home.” Again, the film is not subtle.
mother! positions Him/God, as a creator who has not created mother/the home/Earth but instead uses it as a playground for his creations which he only cares for insofar as they provide him adoration. Later in the film when (pardon the expression) all hell has broken loose, he does not offer any help to the people as they demand more of Him than he is willing to give. But he has been more than willing to offer up the home to these visitors. When people begin to tear the home apart and mother protests, she is told “The poet says it’s everyone’s house” and “He said to share.” Him tells mother “I’m showing them my appreciation” and asserts that the home is made up of “just things [that] can be replaced.” He has no interest in mother’s well-being, only what she can offer Him to offer others so that they may exalt him more. His only interest is the greater glory of Him.
mother!, then, lays the blame for our current crisis at the feet of an uncaring creator. It can be read as an indictment of a monotheism that focuses on God as both creator of humanity and as object of human worship, or even further God as creator for the sole purpose of its own worship, at the expense of all else. In fact, the film seems to draw on the idea of humanity having been made in God’s image, as the humans responsible for the destruction of the home are those who, like Him, seek to take ever more, allowing for them to be understood as settlers and “growth” obsessed capitalists. mother! is a movie that does not have faith in God so much as it blames God for the creation of humanity and the toll humanity’s rapacious existence has taken on the Earth through the actions of those who lead corporations like Balq in First Reformed.
In First Reformed though, Toller explicitly tells the audience “No, I have not lost my faith” in voiceover as he places “Will God Forgive Us?” on the church’s marquee. Toller has not lost his faith in God, but he is uncertain about God’s ability to forgive such wanton disregard for creation. His faith in God is solid but he has lost faith in humanity, or more specifically in society’s leaders to do what must be done to avoid catastrophe. The existence of grace shows God is there, but what Toller learns about climate change shows that humanity, through the voracious demands of capitalism, has spoiled the gift of creation.
A scene where Mary visits, and she and Toller perform a ritual that she used to do with Michael to practice closeness, emphasizes the existence of grace and the disregard for it. Mary lies on top of Toller, face to face, they look into each others’ eyes and match their breathing. They begin to float and the room fades away as we see them fly over beautiful waterfalls, fields, forests, and more; there is grace in this moment that reminds Toller of the beauty of creation. But the images then change; we see sprawling refineries, empty forests leveled by logging, mass trash heaps, and more signs of the destruction of the Earth for capital.
Along with this scene of grace spoiled, Toller’s quoting of scripture in the latter half of the film further confirms his belief in both God and the righteousness of fighting against those who harm creation. He quotes Revelations 11:18 which speaks of God “destroying those who destroy the Earth” and extensively from Ephesians 6 which makes clear that those who take up arms for God “struggle … not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world.” He quotes the latter, which includes commands to “put on the full armor of God,” as he puts on Michael’s suicide vest. The option of violence against those who “destroy the Earth” through suicide offers Toller both an escape from what he now sees as a hopeless situation, and an opportunity to “struggle” in a final act of faith.
An act of faith that may seem perverted, but that Toller has convinced himself is righteous based on scripture and the violent action of those he intends to harm. An act of faith in the face of what he views as a perverted Christianity, Christianity in the service of capital. The pastor of the megachurch that owns Toller’s church literally turns his back on Toller at one point when Toller begs him to take a stand for the environment, because doing so would harm the church’s relationship with Balq and compromise the significant donation. It’s no surprise then that the final scene of First Reformed has a parishioner singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” a song that iconically features in The Night of the Hunter, perhaps the greatest film about the horror of Christianity twisted in the service of capital, albeit on a much smaller scale. What may be a surprise though is that First Reformed offers the possibility of hope in its final image that writer/director Paul Schrader purposefully designed to leave audiences unsure of Toller’s final state, something that Schrader says he himself is not certain about.
Whatever the final image may make us think has happened in First Reformed, both it and mother! seek to horrify their audiences into a state of eco-anxiety. Whether through the listing of facts or employing nearly every trick in the horror filmmaking handbook, the films aim to induce a state of panic about climate change. Ideally this panic would lead viewers to immediately engage in some activity that can mitigate the impending harm, but panic and anxiety can just as easily be paralyzing and lead to resignation. Which leads to the films’ explorations of the place of faith and Judeo-Christian mythology in this current crisis, and whether faith can offer a reason to act. In First Reformed, God is a constant good that humanity has failed so greatly it may be unforgivable, but the question of whether God can forgive us has not been answered, we can still “take up the armor of God” and struggle, however we may understand this. However, mother! blames God for rampant creation without care for the harm that it may do. Neither offers any clear solutions or ideas on the place of faith, but it seems that mother! may be advocating the need to abandon the understandings of God that brought us here, while First Reformed urges us to continue to hold both hope and despair in our minds as we face the potential downfall of our social structures by our own hands.