Hope and despair: the year’s best movies are how-to guides for surviving in 2018
First Reformed is available to stream on Amazon Prime. Sorry to Bother You is available to stream on Hulu.
Every day I open my phone and watch the world fall apart. The president fills my screen with vitriol and blatant lies while his accomplices in the Republican Party support his corrosion of our democratic institutions. The warped definition of freedom they purport to be restoring upholds the routine gun violence I see as I scroll through my news feed. The greatness the president claims to have brought back to America, it seems, necessitates the separation of migrant children from their families and the marginalization and belittlement of women and people of color. This monstrous form of greatness encourages and radicalizes the once latent impulses of white supremacists. It’s all terrible; I can’t look away.
The means by which I consume this information contribute to its degrading influence. The news, instantaneous and unyielding, creeps into every moment of my life. The cost of staying informed about all of these injustices is the mass harvesting of my personal data by corporate behemoths that whittle away at my mental well being. At least these tech giants are keeping me entertained until they automate me out of the workforce.
Who could dedicate any significant mental space to these problems, though, when the world is literally ending? Climate change is no longer an ominous force to worry about in the near future. It is destroying the planet right now. A report released this October by the United Nations outlines the global crises that will befall the globe in the next two decades. Mass food shortages, droughts, wildfires, and global climate-induced poverty will set in before many college graduates are able to pay back their insurmountable student loans.
Yet in the face of this scientifically verified impending doom, the United States government denies its reality and promotes policies that accelerate its devastating effects. Carbon dioxide emissions are up again globally in 2018, and rose in the United States after a decade of decline.
It’s all overwhelming, and terrifying, and paralyzing. Daily violence and the corrosion of democracy are truly urgent, but the long-term future seems even more dire. How do we go on living in a world that seems destined for destruction? The unyielding crises in our world don’t just have implications for public policy, or the economy; they also have implications for the psychology of our daily lives. What could motivate us to search for new beginnings in a world that seems to have an imminent end?
This question is posed quite directly to Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), the stoic reverend at the heart of Paul Schrader’s film First Reformed. Mary (Amanda Seyfried), one of the few members of Toller’s dwindling congregation at the First Reformed church, asks him to speak with her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael “thinks it’s wrong to bring a child into this world,” she says, because climate change will soon make the world unlivable for their child.
Toller meets with Michael the next day, and Michael lays out the impending environmental destruction that will soon befall Earth. A laptop sits behind him showcasing a heat map of the planet’s rapidly rising global temperatures. He is both forceful and fearful about the implications of climate change; he delivers the information with the vulnerability and resolve of a prophet who sees the future but can do nothing about it.
“The world is changing so fast, and right in front of us,” Michael says. “This isn’t in some distant future. You will live to see this.” Although he is an environmental activist, he has no faith that climate change can be reversed. “It’s going to be what it is,” Michael says.
Toller listens patiently to Michael’s fears. When he responds he doesn’t reassure Michael, but merely cautions him against nihilism.
“Courage is the solution to despair. Reason provides no answers,” Toller replies. “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.”
When Toller is not counseling his parishioners, however, he struggles to follow his own guidance. He has little social interaction outside the church, and rarely strays far from it; his sparsely adorned, dimly lit home is adjacent to the chapel. Toller spends his time journaling about his insecurities and drinking a gruesome mix of whiskey and Pepto-Bismol. For a man whose job is to help others find their way, Toller is a tortured soul. As he grimaces through another drink, he wonders if Jesus worried about being liked as he does.
The conversation with Michael, though, disrupts Toller’s routine of internal suffering. His concerns turn existential, and they grow when he discovers that Abundant Life, the nearby mega-church described by Mary as “more of a company than a church,” donated thousands of dollars to a local businessman whose corporation is known for polluting the environment.
First Reformed is financially dependent on Abundant Life, and Toller’s discovery that an institution of faith would contribute to the destruction of the planet leads him further into darkness. Slowly but surely Toller transforms into an unstable figure akin to Travis Bickle, the infamous anti-hero from Taxi Driver, the 1978 Martin Scorsese film written by Schrader.
Toller, however, manages to evade the total darkness that consumed Bickle. On the edge of violence he finds salvation in a moment of genuine, even mystical, human connection. Climate change is still impending and his disillusionment with the church remains intact, but that does not mean Toller has lost his faith. Life is worth living, it seems, for the people we share it with, no matter how fleeting or doomed that shared experience may be.
Reverend Toller begins as a man consumed by inner demons who needs the prospect of environmental apocalypse to start considering anxieties much larger than his own. Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield), the protagonist of Boots Riley’s directorial debut Sorry to Bother You, is nearly the opposite: from the first moments of the film he ponders about the point of it all.
“What will I have done that matters?” Cash asks his girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) as they lay in bed in their makeshift garage-turned-apartment. Cash is unconvinced by Detroit’s argument that our actions matter because they matter to the others in our lives, because one day they’ll all die, too. Detroit tries a different approach. “It will always matter,” she says, “because it matters now.”
It’s hard for Cash to identify with this optimism in the moment: he lives in his uncle’s garage, his car is on the verge of collapse, and he’s broke. But things are looking up: he has just landed a job at RegalView, a telemarketing agency.
Cash manages to work his way up the corporate ladder at RegalView by using his so-called “white voice” on the phone with customers. (The joke is employed literally as the film dubs over Stanfield’s words with David Cross’s voice.) As Cash reels off more sales, he is offered the lucrative “Power Caller” position, and with it more money and a better life. The promotion, however, forces Cash to leave behind his fellow RegalView workers, who are trying to organize for fair wages and benefits. As Cash crosses the picket line he discovers what makes his salary so large: Power Callers are selling slave labor on behalf of corporate giant WorryFree.
Cash loses his values within this capitalist hellscape, choosing a sleek apartment and fancy car over the well being of his friends. Eventually, though, Cash discovers that WorryFree CEO Steve Lift’s (Armie Hammer) long-term scheme is somehow even worse than slave labor, and Cash resolves to expose Lift and rejoin his friends in the fight for labor justice.
At the end of the film Cash and Detroit return to the garage-apartment. They’ve returned to destitution, and Detroit pokes fun at Cash. “What about being part of something important? Looks like the sun is about to explode.”
Cash is right back where he started, but the journey changed his perspective. “We are a part of something important,” he replies. “We’re changing the world.”
The veracity of this claim is questionable: Cash and his friends made some noise, but their world is still defined by an unjust system. Cash, and everyone he will ever know, will still all die one day. But he has found hope in collective action. The destructive power of capitalism may still define his existence, but there is meaning in fighting back.
In tone and style, First Reformed and Sorry to Bother You are near opposites. First Reformed is austere and quiet. There’s hardly any score, and when I think about the film what first comes to mind are the rare noises that puncture the silence of each scene. First Reformed is a movie defined by the rustling wind and the creaking of old church floorboards. And it’s just as stripped down visually: the film is colored by muted pastels that reflect its protagonist’s dour outlook. Perhaps that’s why the image most clearly seared in my brain from the movie is the distinct crease in Ethan Hawke’s forehead, the result of an ever-furrowed brow on a man who can’t escape mournful contemplation.
Sorry to Bother You, meanwhile, is a wild, absurdist satire, a film whose aesthetics are as excessive as the parties thrown by WorryFree CEO Steve Lift. The movie is drenched with bright purples and fluorescent blues, and the loud, grating score reinforces its ‘Fuck you’ attitude. Sorry to Bother You is like some perverse offspring of Requiem for a Dream and The Lego Movie, possessing Requiem for a Dream’s garish visuals and thematic take-down of a crumbling American society and The Lego Movie’s frenetic energy, internet-inspired humor, and rapid-fire pace.
On the surface, these two films also cover completely different subject matter. First Reformed is a movie about faith and the environment. Sorry to Bother You is a movie about, well, a lot of things: capitalism, the social value of art, labor unions, corporate power, racial politics. First Reformed hones in on one man’s internal and external torments; Sorry to Bother tries to take down the whole damn system.
Yet when I thought about what I learned from the movies this year, this pair came to mind immediately. While they differ in style, they share a philosophy of how to live a life in a world that feels like it’s falling apart. Toller strays from living the advice he gives Michael soon after their conversation, but he eventually finds his way back to it: a life of “hope, and despair.” This is the defining ethos of these films, and a wise way of making it through the absurdity of 2018.
Many films call for hope as a means to endure a seemingly merciless world. What sets First Reformed and Sorry to Bother You apart is what Toller tells Michael right after he says he must live with hope and despair: “A life without despair is a life without hope.” Hope for the future will not erase our existential despair; in fact, Toller says, it can’t. The two concepts are symbiotic. Hope is optimism and despair is pessimism, but both states of being imply a deep caring for the future. You cannot hope for a better future, nor can you despair about what the future will bring, if you do not care about the future at all. The opposite of hope is not despair. It is apathy.
Both films contain figures that represent a resignation to the way things are, characters who have no hope or despair. The leader of the Abundant Life church says at one point in prepared remarks for his congregation that anxiety and worry are signs of wickedness. We should not, he advises, be concerned about the future. In a private moment with Toller, he suggests that climate change may even be God’s plan, and that as mere humans we shouldn’t try to mess with it. “Well somebody has to do something!” Toller exclaims. “It's the Earth that hangs in the balance!”
Cash faces a similar encounter with a character peculiarly named Mr. _______, who seems to be the only other black man to reach the Power Caller status at RegalView. In the office Mr. _______ is all business, fully committed to the job despite the moral abdication it requires. But later, in a private conversation at a party hosted by Steve Lift, Mr. _______ explains to Cash why he continues to work for a morally bankrupt corporation. “We don’t cry about the shit that should be,” he tells Cash. “We just thrive in what is.”
Mr. _______, resigned to the belief that he cannot change the system, vows to get what he can for himself. But Cash recognizes the futility of this mindset and rejects it in order to try and save the world. Was Cash able to save the world? Sorry to Bother You suggests that this is not really the point: he tried, and there is meaning in the struggle.
It seemed like the world fell apart in 2018, and the issues that plague us aren’t going away any time soon. 2019 will come and go, and that authoritarian buffoon will (probably) still be in the White House. The coral reefs will still be dying, and I’ll still be addicted to my phone. If I learned anything from the movies this year, though, it’s that I cannot let these seemingly insurmountable problems destroy my will to care. We cannot succumb to apathy. Not because we can change it all, or anything, necessarily, but because as Detroit says, it will always matter right now.
So please: despair about future environmental annihilation or hope that human ingenuity can forge a path to a better future, but at the very least, give a shit about the future. We’re only around for a short time; it just so happens that the time we got stuck with is a complete mess. But that’s no reason to give up. Read a book, love your friends, and every once in a while, fight back. Everything is falling apart on my Twitter feed, but First Reformed and Sorry to Bother You taught me that the world only truly falls apart when we don’t care if it does.