“Nor’easter” begins with a
young, handsome priest divided by his duties to God and to himself, a conflict
that, this time, actually feels fresh. If the expectations on God would seem to
be otherworldly, so too would be the hopes directed towards his messengers,
particularly Father Erik (David Call), who is called upon by an anxious family
to do the impossible, to look Death in the eye and call his bluff.
Erik is just the latest voice
sought by Ellen and Richard Greene, a wealthy older couple off the coast of Maine
who have longed for their missing son Joshua, having vanished five years prior
as an eleven year old. Other priests attempted, and failed, to give the Greenes
not only a sense of hope, but of faith, that their son is alive in some way,
waiting to return to his family despite zero evidence to the contrary.
Erik, inexperienced and hesitant,
tries his hardest to grant them the grace that comes with the silver lining,
imagined or otherwise, accompanying this particular cloud. But the rough
terrain of his quiet hometown means that Erik’s sermons don’t necessarily
receive the sort of attention he would hope, and his faith is already shaken,
broken up. It doesn’t help that Richard is hostile towards help, and that
Ellen calls to Erik at night, in search of the male attention her distracted
husband will not grant her.
It’s unclear if Erik’s struggles
with the couple push him hard in this direction, but as his relationship
deteriorates between them, he is moved to take action in declaring Joshua dead,
a formality that allows for a funeral and the chance for the community to cease
mourning. While Erik is driven by his lack of faith in the boy’s survival, it’s
also clear that his motivation stems from extricating himself from the
situation involving the couple, and Erik himself seems conflicted as to whether
he is bringing these two salvation, or saving his own hide. At the funeral
service, it’s impossible to ignore the two of them staring holes through Erik.
Curiously, the funeral spurs the
objection of one surprising community member: Joshua (Liam Aiken) soon returns
to his family as a sixteen year old, speaking only in fits and starts and
refusing to acknowledge where he’s been, or what he was doing this entire time.
What seems clear is that, though still not at an age of consent, his exile was
of his own volition, and he doesn’t seem fully comfortable returning. What
haunts the boy is the idea that his departure was seen as death. Through this
existential crisis, he reflects anger towards those he left behind for
declaring him dead, as if he’s now a ghost. A reunion with a few classmates
(including “The Place Beyond The Pines” star Emory Cohen) seems to Joshua as if
it’s already happening in the afterlife. He disappeared as a child and returned
as a teenager, and a lack of perspective suggests that he simply doesn’t
understand that he is, for all intents and purposes, a different person.
Joshua’s return weighs heaviest
on Erik, who feels as if he operated the guillotine himself. It’s through his
permission that everyone was ready to move on without Joshua, and with his
return comes the weight of regret crashing down on his head. Doubling down on
Joshua, Erik removes all sensitivity towards this boy, pressing him to reveal
where those five years went. The revelations haunt Erik, and when his curiosity
burns the community once again, he sets out in pursuit of Joshua, on a vain
quest to procure a simple answer to a deceptively complex question.
The quiet “Nor’easter” dodges
several pratfalls in its refusal to adhere to either a clichéd story of a
conflicted man of the cloth, or a tense revenge drama. Writer-director Andrew
Brotzman doesn’t skimp on the complexities of such a situation, giving an equal
focus on the repercussions of each action. As such, “Nor’easter” rewards the
patience of audience members who will react as they would in real life when
faced with such a situation: who are the “good guys” and what is the “right
thing” to do?
As secrets unravel in the film’s
tense third act, you’d think that the story would go off the rails, but
Brotzman keeps the direction tight, creating an intimate story with low
practical stakes, but heavy spiritual ones. The film doesn’t resonate as
sharply as it should – some of that seems due to the inscrutable Erik being
impossible to follow morally, his decisions sometimes the result of an
interesting story turn rather that the actions of a fully-realized character.
But “Nor’easter” never disrespects him or the other characters in creating a
borderline claustrophobic drama with an ending that will likely haunt most
moviegoers long after the credits have rolled. [B+]