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+]