Friday, May 24, 2013


As I watched a beardless Will Oldham deliver an extremely original performance in New Jerusalem I was reminded of his earliest acting role in John Sayles' Matewan where he plays the young teen preacher hootin' & hollerin' at the congregation. In Rick Alverson's sophomore film Oldham plays an evangelical Christian ("Ike") trying to help/"save" his friend & coworker ("Sean") whose suffering from depression and/or some kind of post traumatic stress possibly brought on by his time spent on tour in Iraq while he was in the National Guard. Oldham seems to fit these characters perfectly. From what little I know about him I’m pretty sure he isn’t super religious but there's something about his folky/blue grass/country side that seems to allow him to tap in to these roles and play them masterfully. In an interview with pitchfork a few years ago he was quoted as saying; I think all religions have truth to them. I get the feeling a lot of the recent characters Oldham has played were either made specifically with him in mind or the stories were somewhat crafted around him. He doesn't strike me as the kind of actor who auditions for parts and there isn't one role he's played where I imagined someone else in his place. Acting isn't even his main gig! As a singer, his music is pretty lo-fi & incredibly soulful which are two characteristics one could use to describe just about any recent film he's appeared in.

New Jerusalem has an interesting vibe. Imagine a John Cassavetes film on anti-depressants - it has the same handheld documentary/cinema verite style as any classic Cassavetes film but at the same time it’s a lot more subdued and laidback without all the yelling and explosive outbursts. If the Cassavetes comparison doesn't do anything for you, imagine a natural & minimalist film from the same school as Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy & Wendy & Lucy (both films coincidentally co-star Will Oldham), Ballast, Shotgun Stories, Junebug (which features a cameo from Oldham as well), a student film directed by a young David Gordon Green or any other modern American indie film that shows the seldom seen hypnotic, droning and sometimes beautiful side of "Anywhere USA".
Did Kelly Reichardt pick up that ball that David Gordon Green intentionally dropped after he made Snow Angels? Is it fair to say she's now the leading figure in that genre of natural looking minimalist American independent cinema that's become so popular today? I know Reichardt had nothing to do with New Jerusalem but her influence is all over it. It’s like Rick Alverson plucked the Ike & Sean characters from the background of one of her films.
Ike & Sean work together at a tire shop somewhere in southeast Virginia (I assume southeast Virginia because the only two specific areas that are mentioned in the film are Richmond & Virginia Beach). Ike is fascinated by Sean and constantly asks him annoying questions almost like how a younger brother asks their older cooler brother a string of annoying questions. A lot of Ike's inquires have to do with Ireland (where Sean is originally from) as well as Sean's time in Iraq. It's clear from the start that Sean is a rough edged, brooding individual with a lot going on inside but we don't REALLY get it until he has a panic attack in the bathroom at work one day. After witnessing Sean's panic attack, Ike takes it upon himself to be the good Christian that he is and help Sean find Christ because he feels that’s the only thing that can save his friend.

Ike's devotion to the lord is subtle at first. In the beginning of the film we see him say a quick prayer before eating dinner or make a little bible reference but after about 20 minutes in it's clear that he's a soldier in God's army. Unlike other stereotypical Christian characters found in movies (...and in real life) Ike isn't a judgy, homophobic, "fire & brimstone" Christian. Perhaps my description of him as a "soldier" in God's army was a lil inaccurate as he seems to be pretty anti-war too. Ike focuses on the positive aspects of Christianity.

I can see you at this pivotal point. And you're gonna fall one way or the other - Ike

Are Sean's panic attacks brought on by PTS or something deeper? He sees a doctor who prescribes him medication to cope but Ike pretty much considers these pills (along with all other forms of medication) to be evil "wacky pills". Is this film also trying to make a comment on how over-medicated America has become? Alverson doesn't really dwell on this too much so I may be reaching. 

To some people New Jerusalem is nothing more than a boring low budget indie about two lonely guys debating about Christ while others may consider it to be a brilliant little gem. I personally go with the latter but I would never try very hard to convince someone of this film's greatness if they dislike it because New Jerusalem isn't for everyone. But if you have the patience and find certain matters interesting like; PTS, atheism vs. religion, loneliness, male bonding, depression and the after affects of the Iraq war told from the perspective of someone that isn't American or Iraqi, then maybe this is a film for you. But the one thing that can’t really be hated on in my opinion is Oldham's performance. Ike is a curious, awkward, strange, good intentioned, unique and sometimes pushy individual. It’s almost like he was made in a movie lab with the DNA of other quirky fictitious indie movie characters like; Eddie (Stranger Than Paradise), Dignan (Bottle Rocket), Joe (The Station Agent) & Morgan (Minnie & Moskowitz). If you genuinely like interesting characters I highly doubt Ike won’t get at least a few chuckles from you or moments where you find yourself totally intrigued or fascinated by him. Not to downplay Colm O'Leary's touching performance as Sean, but Oldham/Ike is the highlight of this film. He's so random and just "not all there" at times. In one scene Ike is trying to peer in to Sean's house to see if he's home but it looks like he's trying to break in. Sean's next door neighbor sees this and comes over to ask Ike what he’s doing but Ike doesn't even acknowledge him and keeps on trying to peek in to Sean's house.
Ike definitely marches to the beat of a different drummer...
Ike (L) & Sean (R)
Although Sean is cynical and blahzay about religion, for reasons we come to find out towards the end of the film (no, he wasn't molested by a priest as a child), he goes along begrudgingly and joins Ike at church and to Bible readings. New Jerusalem is unique in that it doesn't take sides. This isn't a pro or anti Christianit film. I know other reviews seem to think otherwise but that's not how I saw it. Sean is an atheist but not one of those self righteous arrogant atheists who comes off just as annoying as the religious fanatics they hate so much. There is a touch of smugness to him but it isn't that serious (when Sean accompanies Ike to church he has a curious/arrogant smirk on his face throughout the service). Sean isn't outspoken, keeps his opinion's to himself mostly and the only time we actually hear his opinions on religion are when Ike instigates a debate. One of the film's best lines is delivered by Sean in a scene where gives his general opinion on religion - I don't trust the man that comes with the message
Ike is pushy with his views. But at the same time he is a good person and he's going out of his way to do what he thinks will help his friend. On one hand Ike makes Jesus & Christianity seem beautiful. The way he speaks of the joy & happiness that the lord brings almost makes me wanna sign up for Bible school. But on the other hand his aggressiveness & pushiness are very off-putting.

Naturally things come to head in a friendship with these two different types of personalities. Towards the end Ike & Sean have a semi-heated argument but make amends a few days later and the film ends on an ambiguous note.
Personally I wouldn’t have had any problem at all with this being an extra 30-45 minutes. There are two subplots that I wish were expanded on – The first involves Sean taking care of his neighbor’s sick cat. At first Sean is hesitant but over time he falls in love with it. This part of the story showed Sean’s sensitive side and his ability to take care of another living thing. The second subplot is about the flirty relationship between Sean and the assistant pharmacist he gets his medication from. Just when things start to spark up between them the film ends. But those are just minor things that don’t make this film any less great. 

Given Alverson's most recent film The Comedy, I expected a more cynical tone to New Jerusalem in regards to religion but thankfully I was wrong. Much like The Comedy, the tone of New Jerusalem slowly creeps up on you. Most films that deal with religion are so black & white. They're either about the evils of religion and the corrupt men behind it or its some naive & simplistic story about someone being saved. There's a lot of grey area in religion and in this film. New Jerusalem isn't just part of Kelly Reichardt's new school of natural realism but it’s also part of a new group of recent films that offer an alternative look at religion and/or spirituality like; Mary, Battle In Heaven, Silent Light, Post Tenebras Lux, To The Wonder & The Tree Of Life.

Beneath the simple plot is a quietly dense and layered film with quite a few hypnotic moments that offers just as many questions as answers.

There's an interesting class of newly established filmmakers emerging in indie cinema over the last 5 years making their presence known with their 2nd or 3rd feature film (Rick Alverson, Sarah Polley, Xavier Dolan, Shane Carruth, Steve McQueen, etc). New Jerusalem is a testament (no pun intended) to the importance of digital media and digital devices in the world of low budget/indie cinema. Although this isn't up on Netflix yet you can see this courtesy of's instant watch. I still love video stores but times are changing. Had it not been for instant watch this would have been damn near impossible to see given there's no DVD release as of yet.


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