If we scrutinized the moments and movements of our lives the way we parse a sentence, the details would be infinite. Under a microscope, we can distinguish features that are otherwise imperceptible. For some, the minute changes in a vinyl record are of the utmost importance. Others take refuge in acknowledging the presence of a higher power, which can only be heard, supposedly, if one listens carefully. It may sound like bloviating, but I am trying to express the exactitude and underlying ethos of New Jerusalem.
With only gossamer strands of a story, New Jerusalem is a pure, minimalist inspection of extremes. Our examples are Sean (Colm O’Leary), an Irishman who recently served with the American military as a fuel supplier in the Middle East, and Ike (Will Oldham), an evangelical simpleton with a religious mission. They ply their days monotonously in the garage of a used tire shop, rolling tires and jacking up Hondas. While their relationship begins innocuously as nothing more than coworkers, Ike coaxes small answers out of Sean, like the difference between being “in combat” and being part of the war. Reticent, depressed and introverted, Sean’s personal life consists of drinking alone and reading poetry and philosophy in his house. When he’s at work, Ike persistently tries to convince him of the incomparable power of salvation. Sean listens skeptically, if only to find other reasons for living and the want of company. Though their conversations are generally one-sided and don’t quite reach the level of discourse, they are imbued with conviction and fragility, and carry great meaning in their brevity.
Writer and director Rick Alverson — who has released several Americana-inflected slowcore records on Jagjaguwar as the vocalist for Spokane and Drunk — is a meticulous artist whose filmic sensibilities do not stray from the leash of his music. He demands attention and warrants reflection. Through intimate close-ups we see the grime under Sean’s fingernails and the weariness of his bearded visage, while Ike’s persona is elucidated by lingering shots and heavy silences. In the same way, the bright outdoor photography contrasts with Sean’s fatigue and the miasma of the town he finds himself stuck in. But Alverson knows enough about desolation to give us room to breathe, as Sean discovers a connection when he takes in an ailing cat and we see contentment as he watches Ike and his friends dive into a river. The film and Sean share a common notion — and this is Alverson speaking directly to his audience — which is that the frantic pace of our hyper-connected, stress-enducing world is thoroughly oppressive. But if we reflect on the alternative, the richness of a passing moment can be revealed.
This point is reiterated and made more explicit through Oldham’s performance, as he vacillates between invasive zealotry, childlike simplicity, and unreadable quietude. He’s as solemn and morbid as he has sounded over so many years and projects in his music career. The pregnant silences are quite disconcerting, as if he’s on the verge of summoning some primal fury. Like the irritating leach he portrayed in Old Joy, Oldham’s character is dogmatic and imperturbable, difficult to read. So Sean acts as a necessary counterpoint: we don’t know how he wound up in this barren Virginian town, but his at least emotions are transparent.
One could draw facile comparisons to the work of Kelly Reichardt and place New Jerusalem in a “Recommended If You Like…” list. Yet Alverson has proven that he is greater than the sum of his influences. Adding to the critical recognition of The Comedy earlier this season, in New Jerusalem he has made a modest statement of intent. His protagonists share a common trait of this solid film: though their pasts are sketchy and destinations unclear, we want to know where they’re headed.