Anarchic and idiosyncratic, the trickster figure of myth shatters routines, transforms lives, and revives the sacred in everyday rituals. The trickster is also willful, intervening in human lives when he thinks they need to change.
This is a lesson to be learned by 13-year-old T.J. Forney (Devin Brochu), introduced as he’s mourning the death of his mother in a car crash. When he first encounters the long-haired metalhead, Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and his decrepit, matte black van, T.J. thinks he’s just met a bigger, meaner version of the bullies who terrorize him daily at school. But when Hesher follows him home and strips to his skivvies to load the Forney washing machine with filthy clothes, T.J. realizes that the fragile equilibrium he has built among the ruins of his family is under threat. The trickster has arrived. And he’s planning to stay.
Hesher is not a movie for the faint-hearted. It’s peppered with malicious cruelty, eschatology, explosions, sex and drugs, indiscriminate bullying, and repeated uses of “fuck” as punctuation—scenes frequently leave viewers wincing as if they’ve been dealt a blow to the head or choking back sobs. It should be unwatchable.
But director Spencer Susser and his exceptional cast root the mayhem so intimately in the habits of lower-middle class life, self-effacing even in collapse, that the movie compels attention. Susser’s risk-taking with narrative, his visual acuity, and the exuberant performance he elicits from the protean Gordon-Levitt submerge the audience in all the hallucinogenic disjunction of fresh, raw grief.
While T.J. clings to a routine of attending school, no matter what happens at home, his devastated father Paul (Rainn Wilson) has sunk so deeply into a pharmaceutical wasteland of somnolence and dirty sweats that he barely notices the intruder. Ailing Grandma (Piper Laurie) accepts Hesher as one more mouth to feed at family dinner, no more bizarre than her nearly mute son and the grandson who wants to buy back the car in which his mother died. Indeed, he might even be preferable to either, in that he thanks her for his meals, responds when she asks questions, and keeps her company when she rests in her memento-filled sick room. She can’t see the variations we do, as Hesher switches from such gentleness with her to a frame-busting exuberance when he sets fire to a total stranger’s pool or seduces the supermarket cashier, Nicole (Natalie Portman), on whom T.J. has fixated with all the intensity of first love.
These extremes seem plausible because Hesher, the character, is something like an immersive experience. Interviewed when Hesher premiered at Sundance in 2010, Gordon-Levitt says that as he read the script, “The character made me stand up and just start saying the words out loud.” And at times, he does indeed seem like an actor possessed. Returning one night from a nightmare ride in Hesher’s van, T.J. stands in his driveway, trying to stop Hesher from parking his van in it. Hesher drives straight at him, bouncing him out of the way to land in the proverbial crumpled heap. “Cool!” breathes Hesher ecstatically as he drags the teenager to his feet. With one beatific smile, Gordon-Levitt conveys both his character’s utter delight in the resilience of the human body and his immediate calculation of future ways in which he can test it.
Hesher’s disorder inspires T.J. to act on his own impulses too. His profession of love for Nicole is inspired by her own fear that no one would notice her death. As they sit side by side, gazing soulfully through the windshield, T.J. adds thoughtfully that he would notice she was dead because he would be in the car with her. The shift between an adolescent’s dreamy passion and a child’s practicality indicates the film’s emotional logic, no matter the wildness of what happens. It even pulls off a soft-focus flashback of the fatal car accident without an ounce of sentimentality.
Such logic extends to the film’s landscape. T.J., Hesher, and Nicole move through an atrophying suburbia bisected by strips malls, cracked pavements, low-rent motels, and freeways. When Nicole rescues T.J. from his schoolyard nemesis (Brendan Hill), she does so in an empty, dusty supermarket parking lot, where discarded shopping carts seem to have taken root. In the perpetual dusk of T.J.’s house, old-fashioned furniture and a hodge-podge of memorabilia clutter the scene. Such locations seem like characters, exhausted and a little surprised by the tenacity that keeps them alive.
The film’s attention to location underscores the debt of Susser and cowriter David Michôd (who made 2010’s Animal Kingdom) to American Westerns. Hesher offers an archetypal wanderer who arrives from nowhere, rescues the deserving, and then disappears. Susser suggests in a recent interview that Hesher might also represent death, who moves in, and moves on, without warning or respite. Whoever he is, Hesher exists precisely. For all its excesses, Hesher is that exotic thing, a movie that celebrates human resilience without a single soppy note.