Friday, April 22, 2011
Look!--It's Jesus' Son
After a lot of dealing, overdoses, and nodding out, a young junkie known only as Fuckhead (Billy Crudup) is going nowhere on a subway car when, jonesing big time, he sees Jesus. And so like any man, he gets a raging hard-on.
Yes, it's a joke, but it's also the Passion and the narcotic and the mix. All of which are just parts of the impressive cinematic kit and caboodle that comprising Alison Maclean's Jesus' Son, a film so inventive, well-acted, spiritually uplifting and just plain brilliant that criminally neglected barely describes the lousy fate awarded this obscured fine effort.
Based on Denis Johnson's superb short-story collection of the same name, Jesus' Son takes place in the 1970s in a series of interchangeably grim nowhere towns. We meet Fuckhead--FH for short--hitchhiking on the highway, hung over and filthy. In a slacker-noir voice-over, FH tells us that he knows the car that's about to pick him up is also going to crash. And the car does crash--all stuttering images, disembodied screams, and bloodied chrome. Then we're in another car with some nattering wack-job salesman.
We would, at this early juncture, be justified in worrying that we're trapped in art-film hell. But Maclean isn't just going pretentious on us. The scattershot technique proves an effective analogue for the mental gum works that pass for a junkie's thought processes. We soon become accustomed to the flip-flopping reality effect as a series of vignettes connect the dots between FH's descent into assorted hells and his nomadic drift toward redemption.
Illustrative of Maclean's subtle modus operandi is a segment of the film called "Work." FH is invited by drunkard pal Wayne (Denis Leary) to do "a salvage job." They rip apart one of a row of abandoned prefab houses. The house turns out to be Wayne's. Between his life-drained face and the blasted-heath landscape, his reasons are clear: He's destroying his house as a means of destroying his past.
Outside the house, Wayne and FH catch a glimpse of a naked woman harnessed to a kite being pulled into the autumnal twilight sky, a beatific look on her face as she literally rises above the squalor. "Now that," Wayne says, "is a beautiful sight."
And it is. The rest of the film looks pretty damn fine too, courtesy of cinematographer Adam Kimmel (Monument Ave.), who films each segment with a mood-enhancing color palette, ranging from Wyeth-like pastoral hues to forensic-room fluorescent blues. But beneath its shifting surface sheen and alternating currents of hard-boiled humor, Grand Guignol gruesomeness, and off-center sweetness, Jesus' Son is all about lost souls searching for . . . well, they're not sure what.
There's Georgie (Jack Black), FH's co-worker at an emergency room. When a redneck ends up in the ER with a hunting knife rammed into his eye, Georgie saves him--but mainly out of a lunatic act born of running low on bennies rather than good Samaritanism. At a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, a partially crippled ex-druggie named Mira (Holly Hunter) offers FH some sexual healing, but her dead/alive demeanor sends him back on the road in search of a more palpable release.
In what's almost a cast-off bit, the film finally shows its cards. A post-overdose FH is asked by a nurse if he's hearing voices. He says no. A tray of computer-animated cotton balls (!) begs to disagree. "Help us!" they squeak in his head, giving voice to the agony that everyone in the film quells with dope and delusions, "Oh God, it hurts!"
At the heart of all this inspired strangeness is FH's girlfriend, Michelle, played by Samantha Morton, who's so good she probably will not win an Oscar. Everyone's known a Michelle. She wears the skimpiest halter-top at the party and is the first to do a big bong hit. She's the girl every boy (and plenty of girls) wants to bed, for reasons that elude them. Michelle's odd allure is that she's both chaos personified and, by default, a born healer. She gives FH's life (and Jesus' Son) an emotional center of gravity. Without Michelle, FH wouldn't last long enough for the quietly grand epiphanies that await him later in the film.
And Crudup? He's as good as he should be, and never aspires to better. When other characters fall off the edge and he's left standing, the actor's cute/doofy face wordlessly lets us in on his own inner wonder at being spared.
With only one other feature (Crush) and some shorts and TV episodes (including a Homicide) to her credit, Maclean already has filmmaking technique up the wazoo. More importantly, she knows how skill weaves the very delicate fabric of her very particular stories. Although informed by the more spacey efforts of Robert Altman (Three Women, Images), her film is free of egocentric auteurisms, and so becomes, appropriately enough, imbued with a rare sense of grace.
While surveying a group of spiritually bloodied survivors, FH says with wonder, "I had never known, never imagined for a heartbeat, that there might be a place for people like us." It's a testament to both the actor and his director's skills that we come to long for such a place, and even feel we might deserve to belong there too.