C.O.G. is an odd little film, based on the David Sedaris essay featured in his compilation piece Naked, which follows a Yale graduate as he searches for “the simple life” by taking a job as an apple picker in Oregon. Although I am familiar with Sedaris’ work I made a point not to read C.O.G. before viewing the film.
We are introduced to David (Jonathan Groff) as a fellow passenger on the bus is shrieking at him about her deadbeat boyfriend. The scene jolts us into cognition—this is not a whimsical road movie where its protagonist discovers the meaning of life through occupational abandon. Traveling sucks and there are enough annoying and strange assholes on the bus to make one want to turn back! At one point David gargles an entire bottle of Nyquil to put an abrupt end to the bus ride from hell.
As his work suggests, humanity never sat quite right with Sedaris, drifting from one occupation to the next, paying more attention to the peculiar quirks of daily life than his own purpose in it. This attentiveness would become his work as Sedaris wrote about his battle with the letter “s” in speech therapy to sculpting mugs for his mother, which “would make the perfect pet bowl,” his brilliance was in the details. Due to the descriptive nature of his prose a Sedaris essay is going to have a hard time translating onto the big screen and only a small niche of participants will understand Kyle Patrick Alvarezs’ adaptation of Sedaris’ work.
Those who are die-hard fans of the writer will dismiss the film, claiming the director did not evoke the correct tone of the essay or left something out. Audience members, who have no idea who Sedaris is, but thought the trailer was clever, will hate this film. C.O.G. does not follow the proper screenplay arch and the protagonist does not invent the wheel or discover who he is in the process.
Instead David discovers the tragedy of life as he travels from place to place, seeing aspects of humanity undiscovered by even the most indie of documentary filmmakers. When he arrives at the apple orchard in Oregon David is the only white person as his friend has abandoned him in California for a crush.
When his boss Hobbs (Dean Stockwell) notices that he is taking a break from picking, in retaliation Hobbs sends David to town to get fuel. After fueling up David runs into Jon (Denis O’Hare, True Blood, Michael Clayton) who is peddling the teachings of Jesus Christ, and refers to himself as a C.O.G. (“Child of God,” or as David puts it “Capable of Genocide”). Jon’s in your face Jesus freak persona is a contrast to David’s stern atheism.
When David finds himself in a bind (all of his travel money has been stolen and he pissed off the wrong person at work) he asks Jon to help him out, who lets him stay in his basement apartment. David is quickly put to work as his emerald cutting apprentice while Jon devises a plan to create clocks in in the shape of Oregon to sell at the upcoming street fair. As both characters begin to unravel we find two very conflicted men, one who has veiled himself in cloaks of the gospel so deeply he is unable to fix what is truly broken; and the other who is so raw, his honesty makes those around him uneasy.
The plot has very little bells and whistles, leaving it up to the actors to create a world worth watching, which they do to a remarkable degree. Groff gives a breakout performance as the-know –it-all Yalie, who prefers eye rolling to angst and perfectly captures the essence of Sedaris. O’Hare who usually plays confident assholes, is remarkable as the lonely vet in need of a true friend who lives outside of the scriptures. Both men learn from each other, but not in a Spielberg type of way where the music heightens and the characters embrace, but in a complex, uncomfortable recoil.
In most films directors ensure that we leave with some sort of closure, Alvarez keeps us in contemplation mode.