Jesus' Son Directed by Alison Maclean
Jesus' Son (the title's from the Velvet Underground's song "Heroin") is like Peter Fonda's character: less a movie than a vibe. But it's a great vibe. Directed by Alison Maclean from the novel by Denis Johnson, the storytelling is nonlinear, which is only natural, considering the film is narrated by a scatterbrained smack addict known only by the initials "FH," for Fuck Head. Jesus' Son appears to begin in medias res, with FH, played by Billy Crudup, alone on a rainy highway, hitching a ride with a perfectly ordinary family on vacation and foreseeing their doom before they even stop to pick him up. He's trying to locate his ex-girlfriend, Michelle (Samantha Morton), who ran out on him for reasons FH hasn't disclosed yet; once FH arrives outside her door, though, he stops the story and backs up to the day they met. Most movies that begin like this would keep moving in one direction until we finally caught up with the opening scene. Jesus' Son does move forward through time, but not in a straight line. The narrative goes wherever FH wants it to go, doubling back, correcting false impressions, telling jokes only FH finds funny and issuing verdicts on scenes and characters that only FH is in a position to verify.
Every story he tells reminds him of a different one; by the time he finishes recounting them all, he's shared some of the strangest and most significant moments of his life, but in a hopelessly scrambled order, and without connective tissue. If a movie character's life is a jigsaw puzzle?the Citizen Kane analogy?this movie assembles a couple of corner areas and part of the center, but leaves the rest of the pieces in a pile on the floor.
There's really no reason to expect that a movie like this would work. But most of the time, it does work; it works even when it's not really working. It draws you into a state of reverie and holds you there, like a great 70s rock album by a singer-songwriter with a knack for expressing raw emotion in laid-back lyrics?think Reed, Neil Young, John Lennon or Bob Dylan circa Blood on the Tracks. Visually and emotionally, it's really beautiful, not in a polished, glitzy, 30-second-Superbowl-ad way, but beautiful in the way that decayed Super 8 movies and dog-eared Kodachrome snapshots are beautiful. This isn't a retro-70s movie like Boogie Nights, which deploys period filmmaking techniques in a clever but self-consciously artificial way. It doesn't merely worship the past; it seems to be of the past. It looks, moves and feels like a 70s movie?something directed by Hal Ashby (Shampoo, Bound for Glory), with timeline-pretzel-maker Nicolas Roeg (The Man Who Fell to Earth) in the editing room. Maclean's slow-jam storytelling is stirringly right?more stoned than trippy. Gus Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy, a film with which Jesus' Son can't help inviting comparison, also concerned heroin addicts in the 70s, but the scudding clouds and pinwheeling hats and cattle were redolent of LSD (or a comic book artist's impression of LSD).
Though the individual episodes are arranged in a slightly off-kilter order, they're self-contained, like individual short films about FH's life. (Possible alternate title: 32 Short Films about Fuck Head.) We see FH's first encounter with Michelle in what might be a commune or a drug den (as if the two are mutually exclusive). He sits in a chair watching in admiration as she dances seductively near him, his dopey expression indicating that he can't quite believe this beautiful woman's overt come-on is directed at him. We see FH's long stay in a Holiday Inn with Michelle; the two of them scrounge for food and dope, have a lot of sex, relive the past and try very hard not to think about the future. We see brief snippets of FH's male friendships, most of which are even more screwed up than his love affair with Michelle. Denis Leary plays a junkie and alcoholic named Wayne, a wannabe cowboy who convinces the hero to help him bust up a house with a hammer so they can sell the copper wiring in the walls to buy more booze and smack. Somehow FH gets a job as a hospital orderly?a great gig if you're a drug fiend?and he and his pal Georgie (Jack Black, the rotund, mad-eyed scene stealer from High Fidelity) react with droll bemusement to a patient who comes in with, shall we say, a vision problem. (Viewers who dig horrifying ER anecdotes will laugh in amazement; the rest will cover their eyes.) Later, during the inevitable rehab stint, FH gets a job at a hospital for society's outcasts?the elderly, the decrepit, the retarded, the mad?and meets an ex-junkie named Bill who got shot through the jaw by one of his two ex-wives. Bill is played, of course, by Dennis Hopper, who by this stage in his career has become the go-to guy to play aging druggie and ex-druggie characters who have one or two great scenes: he is to substance abuse stories what Warren Oates was to the western. Holly Hunter has a small role as a woman FH meets in rehab and takes a shine to. She's draped with layers of Southwestern hippie-mama clothes and walks with a cane to better subdue her naturally fierce sexual aura. It doesn't quite work, and perhaps it's not supposed to, but her brief sex scene with Crudup is a gem of carnal heat and light.
I haven't read Johnson's novel, but I'm told that the screenplay?credited to Oren Moverman and producers Elizabeth Cuthrell and David Urrutia?preserves the story's major characters as well as its meandering but hypnotic tone. Like the insufficiently praised movie version of American Psycho, Maclean's film does a fine job of mimicking the effect of a first-person and very subjective viewpoint. That's never easy in movies, an inherently objective medium where what you see onscreen is more or less what you get. The ellipses and serpentine digressions are the source of the film's successes and failures, and the successes are striking enough that I didn't really mind the failures. Yes, it's too long, and often unclear about when, exactly, FH becomes a junkie and when he gives up the life (it's possible that he isn't sure, either). And the movie doesn't feel as complete and perfect as Drugstore Cowboy?nor does it provide us with as many funny and frightening nuts-and-bolts details about how junkies live from fix to fix.
The film is also damaged, I think, by a failure to concentrate on two or three periods in FH's young life. Except for the hero and his girlfriend, who come across as mysterious but palpably complex people, the script covers so much ground so elliptically that the supporting characters aren't permitted to rise above the level of fascinating walk-ons. Hunter's character, Mira, has a weird and tragic enough romantic history that she could anchor a movie of her own; we get about 15 minutes with her, and that's it.
But the vibe, the vibe, the vibe: it's gorgeous, infuriating and at times unique. Cinematographer Adam Kimmel has a lot to do with it. He shoots the picture in widescreen, keeping thin slivers of the frame in focus and letting the rest of the composition fuzz out?an objective correlative for the short attention span and time-resistant myopia of the junkie mentality. The colors are warm and alive but slightly hazy and faded?contradictory qualities dazzlingly reconciled. The photography works in conjunction with David Doernberg's jumbled, weathered production design and Kasia Walicka Maimone's credibly rumpled costumes to create a feeling not of nostalgia, but of present-tense melancholy for situations and people the hero is reexperiencing through memory. The whole film looks like a series of color record album covers from the 60s and 70s, records that have become wrinkled and faded from improper storage but that still evoke intense feelings of loyalty and loss when you flip through them stoned in the wee hours of the morning.
Special note should be taken of Crudup. He's outstanding, but, then, he's always outstanding?always acting in the moment even when his voiceover is remembering things past; never romanticizing the hero or begging forgiveness for his destructive mistakes; looking at friends and lovers with the faintest hint of disbelief. In some scenes, when other characters are talking directly to him, his eyes move around them, as if he isn't exactly sure what part of his field of vision deserves concentration. We've seen this eye movement before: it's the eye movement of someone watching a movie, responding to the story's emotions and perhaps experiencing them firsthand while remaining acutely aware that none of it is really happening. It's a masterstroke that makes a filmmaker's conceit as real and piercing as a skin pop: FH is the hero of his own movie, and he can't edit it or make it stop. It's probably no coincidence that Crudup has done his strongest work in period movies set in the 60s, 70s and early 80s: a fine small part in the wretched Sleepers, the leads in Waking the Dead and Without Limits, the second lead in The Hi-Lo Country, which was set after World War II but felt like a lost revisionist western from the 70s. Every time I see him in a movie, I say the same thing: This guy is going to be a major star. But I'm starting to wonder. He reminds me less of Robert Redford, Ryan O'Neal and other limited 70s leading men, and more of Jeff Bridges and Nick Nolte, two handsome and frighteningly talented actors who have hovered near the A-list for decades without ever quite making the jump to superstar status. Crudup is their brother in spirit, a lost soul from a great era of American filmmaking. Rather than building a fortune doing pandering pap, he seeks out material that challenges him, and viewers. In that sense, he might be too good and honest an actor to be a major star. Craft is his addiction.