Before becoming singer-songwriter laureate for new, weird America, Will Oldham was a child actor, whose first major role was the teenage Baptist preacher in John Sayles’s Matewan. In his latest latter-day indie film turn, in R. Alverson’s New Jerusalem, he spreads the Word a little differently, playing a lonely, sweet, earnest, vulnerable amateur evangelist, who sets out to redeem his recessive, depressive Irish tire shop coworker Sean, played by Colm O’Leary (who wrote the script with Alverson). With his teary eyes and big-baby face—pinkish and hairless save for a whitish-blond mustache—Oldham is alternately blithely naïve and stammeringly serious—his attempt at communicating his belief, and his transparent responses of joy or disappointment at its reception, is as much the subject of the movie as Sean’s spiritual distress or clinical depression, whichever it is.
Alverson brings Sean’s plight into focus slowly, starting with oblique close-ups and quiet scenes at the margins of life—dirty hands doing menial labor; scotch and jazz LPs before bed. The film has a real feel for the sorrows and consolations of solitude, a nervously ascetic interiority, even as the two’s developing odd-bird friendship brings about a head-on address of spiritual concerns.
Scenes from the film-within-the-film are shown out of order, per the shooting schedule, while actors from the movie seem to play their characters in the origin story as well—but variations on the same scenes all play out in the same flat digital, in the same nondescript Southern woods and hotel, in the same perplexingly uneven acting style. There are digressions into the allure of cinema (the director woos his leading lady by showing her The Lady Eve on his bedroom set), and inside jokes aplenty. (The film-within-a-film is directed by “Mitchell Haven,” Haven being the opposite of Hellman.) The tone of mystery and mysticism is more stated than demonstrated—excepting an early predawn plane crash, which comes from out of nowhere and lingers, unexplained throughout—but the film’s seemingly semi-private scale has its own fascination. (After the Q&A, filled with jokes about Monte Hellman’s Facebook addiction and a ten-hour rough cut, the producer, Monte’s daughter Melissa, filmed the audience pronouncing the movie “A fuckin’ masterpiece,” in unison.)