Before he turned to filmmaking, writer-director Rick Alverson used to front the indie band Spokane, who’ve been described as the “secular, post-rock version of Low,” and New Jerusalem, a small drama that pits a man of faith against a man of doubt, feels closely related to that band’s hushed aesthetic. For every line of dialogue there seems to be twice the amount of moody silence, which often occurs while Sean (Colm O’Leary), an Irish immigrant who’s just returned from service in Kandahar, suffers through existential bouts of anxiety and dread. Ike (Will Oldham), a steadfast Christian who works with Sean at a tire shop in Virginia, tries to steer the aimless vet into the direction of God’s kingdom, where, as Ike says without a hint of self-consciousness, you don’t have to walk because the Bible provides you with a Humvee.
If The Comedy works, it’s not so much because Alverson made his nearly sociopathic protagonist human to us, but because the story is played straight enough that Tim Heidecker’s hipster clown antics become jokes more uncomfortable and troubling than funny. With New Jerusalem, Alverson seems to be reaching for something a little more sincere, but no matter how barely perceptible it is, and no matter what he preemptively declared in interviews about treating his characters equally, there’s still the creeping sense that beneath everything lies a hint of insincerity. Though Oldham plays Ike straight, some of his dialogue is absurd, such as the favorable equation of the most fuel-inefficient vehicle to the Bible. And he’s clearly made to seem a tad stupid and racist: He willfully ignores Sean’s black neighbor, despite the fact that this man approaches him very politely several times to find out why he’s wandering around near his property, and refers to a co-worker simply as “The Mexican.” Perhaps Alverson, an admitted atheist, couldn’t hold back some of his disdain for a character he fundamentally disagrees with (see the way he celebrates this disrespect in the church-set scene from The Comedy).
Unlike the soul-searching characters from Old Joy, which also stars Oldham, Ike and Sean always feel as if they’ve fallen out of the sky just for the film’s setup. And by contrasting their beliefs, through which the characters are entirely defined, Alverson, unlike Reichardt, doesn’t really offer any profound insights about either character. Despite Ike hammily trying to convert Sean to Christianity (he even washes Sean’s feet in a bowl of water), he ultimately remains who he is. And Ike, who isn’t offered much of a challenge by Sean, goes on believing his way is the right way. While one could see this as perhaps mirroring the larger divide happening across America, New Jerusalem, a film that uses its lack of story and character development without an interesting effect, ultimately feels too inconsequential for such an interpretation.