1999, R, 111 min. Directed by Alison Maclean. Starring Billy Crudup, Samantha Morton, Jack Black, Dennis Hopper, Holly Hunter, Denis Leary, Greg Germann, Will Patton.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 7, 2000
In the world of junkies, the land of molten time and single-minded purpose, what kind of utter screwup must a person be in order to have earned the sobriquet “Fuckhead” from one's peers? That's the name of the narrator of Jesus' Son, the film adaptation of Denis Johnson's acclaimed collection of interrelated short stories of the same title. Fuckhead (Crudup) -- FH for short -- is a young man in Iowa City in 1971 when we first encounter him. He accompanies his tale of the next several years with a voiceover narration that guides us through his journey, jumping forward and backward in his thought associations and continuities. Finding love with a beautiful junkie named Michelle (Morton), FH is just another young man of his times, seeking enlightenment, enrichment, and meaning in his life. But the deeper his attachment becomes for his girlfriend and their drugs (described in the Velvet Underground song “Heroin,” from which the phrase “Jesus' son” comes, as being the junkie's “wife” and “life”), the more FH discovers that he has lost all ability to feel anything emotionally. Thus, it's as if FH's entire quest is a search for pain, because the recognition of agony would require the acknowledgment of emotion, and an affirmation that one belongs to the land of the living. By the end of his tale, several years from the point at which it began, FH is literally learning how to touch people again, but along the way we've become familiar with his world of cheap motels, stone-faced hallucinations, surreal events, and squirrelly characters. The movie offers a host of small but choice roles for a number of actors. Standouts include Jack Black as a disorderly hospital orderly amped up on handfuls of his employer's pharmaceutically pure stash, Holly Hunter as a recovering addict who's been married and widowed more times than she can count, Denis Leary as an un-Leary-like junkie who does things to the extreme, and Dennis Hopper as a man who's had, let's say, more than one close shave. Crudup and Morton own the film, however, inhabiting these characters to the extent that we can practically feel the gunk of their bodies and the smell of their altered metabolisms. Although both actors have been highly praised for their previous work, this project should earn them more of the popular recognition they so justly deserve. Co-scripters Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia, and Oren Moverman have done a fine job of translating Johnson's book of fragmented epiphanies and observations into a fluid, character-driven narrative, although the ultimate interpreter here is director Maclean. Her images are so grounded in reality that there's a genuine authenticity to this New Zealander's gray Iowa streets of the early Seventies and the hallucinogenic aberrations of her characters. Adding to the period feel of the movie is its plentiful use of popular music of the era, which is augmented by an original score by Joe Henry. Jesus' Son also experiments with various techniques such as split screens, blackouts, and language in telling its story. Their accumulated result is to foster a sense of exploratory storytelling and command of the material. The movie will not be for all tastes. Its seedy lifestyles, nonjudgmental attitudes, nonlinear narrative, and central character whose problem is his lack of emotions is definitely nonstandard fare. One might also wish for some of the movie's loose ends to be less, uh, loose. But if our cross to bear is a soulless, unfeeling universe, the altar of its supplication is Jesus' Son. (See Screens section this issue for interviews with Alison Maclean and Denis Johnson.)