John Rosman’s directorial debut feature is like a great Bob Dylan song, which is fitting for how often you hear the singer’s distinct voice throughout it. New Life is a bit weird, more than a little confrontational, and yet, most importantly, it’s an experience you can’t stop listening to.

The longer you watch, the more it sneaks up on you before bowling you over in a finale both painfully inevitable and bold in a way that rips your guts out. New Life is one of the most fascinating movies of the year and, just as importantly, it exists right alongside Pig as a great Portland-shot movie that plays with our expectations.

The film begins with a bloodied Jess (Hayley Erin) running through the Pacific Northwest in an attempt to escape into Canada. We don't initially know why she is fleeing or what happened other than people are chasing her.

A quick stop at her home—Trivia tidbit: She stops at the house Rosman used to live at in Portland—and she has to keep moving; goons with guns come knocking. Jess hits other stops in the city, most noticeably North Lombard's Sundown Pub, while pursued by veteran agent Elsa (Sonya Wagner) who seems less than excited about her assigned task. As we trace each character's path, we soon discover that they have much more in common than they realize. 

If that sounds like a strange, potentially-fraught tonal balance to strike, it absolutely is, but strike it Rosman does to magnificent effect. Just when you think you have New Life pinned, it shifts into something else, gradually peeling back the layers of its characters until we feel the full agony they're facing. Each is seeking something more for themselves only to discover it is all slipping through their fingers. The film features moments of action and horror, and proves plenty entertaining in how it unfolds, but the real heart is in the small slices of life Rosman excavates from each character.

While New Life effectively wraps itself in genre elements, with a central twist that won’t be revealed here, it is in moments of realization where New Life proves shattering. Scenes where Jess and Elsa lock eyes are just as cinematic as the stunning shots that Rosman captures of the Oregon landscape around them. The film is undeniably working with a limited budget, but it thrives within these limitations, making the most of every location as we march towards an ending that feels devastating in the best way. 

Both Wagner and Erin give spectacular performances, each speaking about things that can apply to each of their characters. It’s the type of moment that makes an already sturdy film into a hidden gem, polishing off the rough spots with blood. Rosman taps into a transcendent truth about modern life, even as his film's characters traverse tragedy. 

Which brings us back to Dylan. “Like a Rolling Stone” haunts this poetic meditation on life, the body, and the soul. We first hear it in the film, at the beginning, as Elsa tries to prepare herself to face another day. The song serves as her shield against the pain of this existence but, of course, it can’t last forever. And yet, as we hear it playing one final time at the film's end, Rosman’s closing deployment of it ensures the echoes of this song and his film ring true. It’s a hard truth, but that’s life. Though New Life's characters may not find the world they are desperately running towards, it is Rosman’s work that contains entire worlds of its own.  

New Life makes its official Oregon premiere with a special screening at the Hollywood Theatre, 4122 NE Sandy, Sat May 4, 7:30 pm, w/ writer-director John Rosman will be in attendance. It's also available via video on demand.