Despite a rather large and enthusiastic critical embrace of American neo-neo realism ("Wendy and Lucy," "Goodbye Solo," "Ballast," and a few others), there haven't been many (if any) new players entering the field. By contrast, mumblecore micro-indies are cropping up like corn, with young directors seizing the "me too" attitude and grabbing shitty cameras to capture characters in apartments talking about relationships or focusing on their own inadequacies. Some are different, some are great, and like anything, you have to wade through the shit (which still get perplexing amounts of overenthusiastic quotes) in order to find the few artists pushing for something more. The neo-neo's are fewer in number, but they're generally all worthwhile in some way, using their own brand of minimalism not to film conversations, but to start them.
Writer/Director R. Alverson, who inserted his coin with the solid debut "The Builder," continues to push forward in the vein of Kelly Reichardt and Lance Hammer with "New Jerusalem." His first entry was a one-man show (not in a derogatory sense, as actor Colm O'Leary has a rather fascinating presence), here he takes the logical next-step and throws another player into the mix. Of course, it's not just any other actor, it's indie-folk hero Will Oldham, who's impressed many in his previous projects "Old Joy" and "The Guatemalan Handshake." The pairing of the two couldn't be any more fitting; they both have a subtle demeanor that suggests something more beneath the surface, possibly something dark. Thus their moments together — Oldham poking, prying and pushing the defensive, irritable, and bottled O'Leary— have an amplified intensity to them. This may be obvious, but it should be noted that any other pairing wouldn't have worked as well for this story.
The story, though, is a bit too general to call the "goings on" in this film. Much like in his previous flick, Alverson keeps the narrative very simple: Sean (O'Leary) scores a job at a used tire shop after returning from a tour in Afghanistan, a gig that seems to pale in comparison to his army supply duty overseas. Ike (Oldham), an evangelical co-worker, takes notice of Sean's troubled composure, finding an opportunity to bring a lost soul into God's eternal love. As their relationship progresses he gets a little more pushy and a tad bit unsettling, even as Sean humors him with a visit to his church or a talk with his pastor. Ike's fondness and need for his co-worker is treated like the beginning of a drug addiction, always yearning for a little bit more.
Without the constraints of a heavy plot, the director is not only able to delve into the characters and reveal what really makes them tick, but he's also able to make grander statements and observations that would get muddled under different circumstances. For instance, a visit to the doctor gives Sean peace of mind; he's finally able to explain his condition to someone who understands and can help him, medically. Despite the fact that his friend is finally piecing himself back together, Ike writes this satisfaction off as if it not only conflicts with his beliefs, but also with his agenda. The film is substance-rich, touching on topics such as science v. religion and possible over-medication in America, but without a heavy hand. You can take what you want or not take anything at all, peel away the skin to examine or simply enjoy the outermost layer containing the strong, delicate performances. The latter is especially outstanding, if only because it'd be very easy to have an over-the-top religious nut, but instead Alverson respects his characters and gives them multiple dimensions.
Alverson is a lot like (but certainly not limited to) the American version of Nuri Bilge Ceylan — extremely insular, dense, and not about to add artificial conflict or overly-general story arcs to make things more digestible. Those holding this (and Ceylan's oeuvre, for that matter) to those kinds of standards and not taking it on its own terms are not only missing the mark but doing themselves a huge disservice, as this filmmaker is exactly what is needed in American underground cinema, if only to distill the talky-mini DV poisons that it's polluted with. He's also a unique voice with plenty to say (he's got three more projects on the cooker) and has got a studious eye, finding depth not only in how people interact, but even how they carry themselves. "New Jerusalem" requires patience but will reward with a hypnotic experience, one that buries itself into the brain and refuses to leave. [A-]
This is a reprint of our review from SXSW 2011. "New Jerusalem" opens on Friday in New York City and will also be available on VOD on iTunes.