Life has been sucked out of nearly every frame of “New Jerusalem,” a claustrophobic two-hander about an Irish immigrant in Virginia after a tour of duty in Afghanistan and the Bible-thumping redneck determined to put him on the path of righteousness. R. Alverson’s sophomore feature evinces an interest in patterns and still lifes that does little to counter the flat description of two men jousting for one soul — or is it the soul of the nation? Will Oldham’s presence may attract a certain urban male aud, but other takers for this lean slice of indie Americana will be scarce.
Following deployment in Kandahar, Sean (Colm O’Leary) ends up on the outskirts of Richmond, working in a used-tire store with good ol’ boy Ike (Will Oldham). Sean has seen many things, plus he reads Walt Whitman and listens to the Bill Evans Trio — in other words, his mind is open, which is why he’s a restless soul with frayed emotions.
For Ike, there’s only one book and one path, and that’s the New Testament: “With the Bible, you’ve got a Humvee; you don’t have to walk,” he tells Sean, looking at the Irishman with suspicion and pity. Ike is unwilling to examine new concepts, and determined to recruit others to his beliefs.
But there’s no tug-of-war here, since Sean is too vulnerable for real intellectual combat, and he’s also too respectful to challenge Ike’s convictions, which leaves the conflict lacking spark — and auds wondering why Sean continues to hang around Ike.
Presumably he’s drawn to the other man’s certainty, yet there’s no escaping the feeling that Alverson and O’Leary, who co-scripted, are trying to force a theatrical construct onto characters who can’t sustain the burden of a realism they strive so hard to achieve. On their own, these two might be interesting studies, and each is granted respect by the script, but together they don’t add up.
Pic reps a relentlessly male vision (perhaps recognizable only to the Promise Keepers), and the absence of women, except on the fringes, greatly contributes to the sense of a hermetic one-act play unsuccessfully blown up to bigscreen proportions. Oldham’s flat delivery increases the sense of airlessness, though his face registers a mixture of disdain, anger and bewilderment that seems right for a man unable to entertain another point of view.
Closeups abound, not just of faces but cracked cuticles and dirty nails, symbolizing perhaps the “real” America of the working class. Alverson cuts in images of empty rows of chairs, leaning towers of hubcaps and patterns formed on concrete that have a certain stark attractiveness yet convey less about the characters and more about the helmer’s desire for artistic recognition. Blurry shifts in focal depth call attention to themselves without offering anything meaningful in return.