Sunday, May 22, 2016

REVIEW: 'Preacher' - Jesse Custer Struggles to Find His Purpose as the Preacher in Annville in 'Pilot'

AMC's Preacher - Episode 1.01 "Pilot"

Jesse struggles to escape a past that is slowly catching up to him. A mysterious entity comes to Earth, leaving a wave of destruction in its wake.

Preacher has long been a comic book series that has mystified the entertainment industry on how to adapt it for the screen. Over dozens of years, many different writers and directors have tried to visualize the graphic material. But it has proven very difficult to do because of how harsh, violent and ruthless its world is. Now, I have never read the comic book series. So I can't say one way or another how well AMC's Preacher handles the material. What I can say is that this pilot episode was a delightful and compelling experience for all of its 90-minute premiere. It never made a whole lot of sense. That's something that can doom almost every single ambitious and mysterious premise. And yet, Preacher is fascinating to watch because it braces such an uncertainty. It doesn't make anything easy for the audience. It literally just drops the viewers into the world of characters and hopes we'll be able to catch up to everything that is important to these people. It's enjoyable to watch because the characters are so amusing to see. It's just great experiencing in the moment as the details of their lives and backstories are revealed very slowly. This premiere doesn't tell the audience where the story really goes from here or explains what even happens. But the characters work and that makes it easy to be intrigued about what could possibly happen next.

The story begins with some kind of mysterious entity traveling throughout all of space. It makes its way to Earth somehow and finds itself attracted to many different kinds of preachers across the planet. It starts with a devout man in Africa, then journeys to Russia, followed by Tom Cruise, before finally landing in Annville, Texas and their local preacher Jesse Custer. From the moment the pilot begins, it's clear that faith and religion are going to be an important fixture of the series. This entity is drawn to those religious leaders. It chooses Jesse. He's the only one to survive being hit by it. The other three instantaneously combust. It makes for quite a brutal image that really makes a lasting impression. That's only the beginning of the violence on display throughout this premiere. Things only intensify. But it's also curious why Jesse is the only preacher to survive this encounter. He doesn't act like any of the other men. He's a preacher solely to fulfill a promise he once made to his father before he died. What's so special about him? I'm guessing we're about to find out.

Jesse is a horrible preacher. He does his best to serve his church in Annville. That largely means fixing the church sign after it gets repeatedly vandalized and giving his parishioners vague advice for their problems. Jesse doesn't really inspire a lot about faith or God in his preaching. He writes down his sermons and just gives up when he no longer has something to say. He's a man running from a past. Details of which are kept from the audience but everyone in town seems to know about Jesse Custer. He has a reputation for doing some nasty things before he returned to this town. It's a mystery why he returned to Annville. Everyone wants to know why he's back and what he's hoping to accomplish as a preacher. He can't give them any good or rational answers. This is just something he feels he should be doing. He doesn't really believe in God. He believes he has gone missing. When he prays, he doesn't feel like anyone is listening. His faith has been shaken to its core. The reason why is a mystery. He's obviously running from something. But he's not running towards anything in Annville either. He's simply a man with no purpose. A man who wants to do the right thing but doesn't know how to do that considering he is surrounded by a community who is just as damaged and disturbed as he is.

Jesse's existence in Annville is largely defined by him trying to be a good preacher. He's concerned about things preachers should be concerned about. But he can't seem to make much of a difference with his words. A young boy tells him about his father abusing his mother physically. The young boy wants Jesse to use his skills from his prior life to teach his father a lesson. It's something Jesse is admittedly nervous about him. He doesn't want to be that person anymore. He's still more than confident being that way though. He warns the boy about the dangers of what he's truly asking. He then tries to make a difference by reaching out to the mother. And yet, he is horrified to learn she likes the beatings. This marriage works for her. It's just doing immense harm to the child. So, it does seem like Jesse has a good soul. When the father, Donny, later threatens the boy for telling Jesse about his abusive nature, that's when Jesse decides to embrace his old ways once again. He beats up Donny and his friends making them squeal just like he promised he would. That sequence shows just how capable and vicious a fighter Jesse is. But it largely just leaves him questioning what his purpose is in this town.

The past always seems to be haunting Jesse. He can't escape it nor can he hide in some new and better life. He is who he is. That's what his former flame Tulip tells him. He's running away from something he just can't run away from. She wants him to do anything job with her just like they used to do. That has no meaning because the audience doesn't know what they would do together. But it's a thrilling and tantalizing promise nevertheless. This premiere showcases just how skilled and ruthless both of them can be. Tulip gets her own action sequence that basically shows that she is a total badass who should not be messed with. She's a fantastic character who is exciting to watch the moment she appears onscreen. She can be strong and lethal when it comes to killing hitman. But she can also be sensitive to the kids she stumbles upon during her journey as well. Plus, that homemade bazooka was awesome - even though the audience didn't actually see it in action. She represents so much danger for Jesse as she re-enters his life. She doesn't think he can change. Nor should anyone want to. She understands who she is and she's completely fine with that. That's probably going to make her a standout character this season.

But Jesse's past isn't the only thing defining his time in Annville. There's also a tease that there's even more violence on its way. It's one thing for him to be involved in a brawl in the local tavern with Donny and his fellow thugs. It's another thing completely for an Irish man named Cassidy getting into an epic fight in an airplane and then descending togethers the ground with only an umbrella. That indicates that there are some wicked and supernatural forces at play here. It's more than just a question of religion. Cassidy lands on the ground torn apart. He devours a cow and is made whole once again. He is a creature who lords over this land. But now, he finds himself in Annville running away from his own past. He and Jesse sure do have a lot in common. Plus, they are already interacting in town. Jesse is searching for purpose. Cassidy can't give it to him. But he offers an enlightening experience nevertheless that could hold a ton of amusement going forward.

None of this is building towards Jesse getting any additional enlightenment over what he is suppose to be doing as a preacher in Annville. His life is still filled with violence and none of it is bringing him closer to God. He doesn't see any purpose whatsoever to continuing with this endeavor. And then, he is randomly hit by the mysterious entity. He has no idea what has happened. He just wakes up and has to get ready for Sunday services. It's not surprising at all that this entity came for Jesse by the conclusion of the premiere. But that doesn't mean it's easy to understand what's going on in this world either. This incident is what convinces Jesse he needs to continue being a preacher in this town. It has helped him realize that this community needs saving. They may need saving from him though considering his presence - as well as Tulip and Cassidy's - is only bringing more danger to Annville. But it's also noteworthy that Jesse's words will now carry so much more meaning. After struggling to get a parishioner to listen for the entirety of the premiere, Jesse's words finally make an impact after he is struck by the entity. The man travels all the way to his mother's nursing home in Florida to be true to himself and open his heart up to her. He's in a trance of sorts. Jesse's words have changed this man. He has forced him to literally listen to the advice. So he is successful in being honest with his mother about his feelings. But he then kills himself by cutting his heart out of his chest and giving it to her. It's a nasty way to end the premiere. It's a moment filled with grotesque violence. And yet, it's so pulpy and fun to watch. Again, not a whole lot makes sense in this premiere. But it does enough to establish a world that's worth returning to for further exploration.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Pilot" was written by Sam Catlin and directed by Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg.
  • Jesse's assistant, Emily, is the only person who knew that he had plans to leave the church because he wasn't doing a very good job. She's a frustrated single mother who is committed to making the place more appealing. But she's not about to convince Jesse to stay because she recognizes he was only half-interested in running the place.
  • The Sheriff of Annville seems like an interesting guy. He's not about to do anything without any kind of official complaint or reason. But he's still more than willing to lock the preacher up after he gets into a fight.
  • The Sheriff's son, Eugene, has a pretty major facial deformity. It makes it so subtitles are necessary whenever he talks. That's an amusing detail. But he has a tragic past as well that is making him questioning his belief in God - just like Jesse.
  • Two men are chasing the mysterious entity all over the globe. They track it down pretty effectively too. They travel to the sites of its presence in Africa and Russia. Plus, they recognize that it has finally landed in Annville. That's a threat that will immediately be important in the next episode.
  • It's meaningful that the premiere shows Jesse, Tulip and Cassidy in action. They can all handle themselves in battle. They are all different. And yet, they are all in the same church in Annville just as the world is about to change around all of them.