Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rainn Wilson, Natalie Portman, Devin Brochu, Piper Laurie
US theatrical: 13 Sep 2011
“We all have those moments where we just want to forget everything and not pay attention to consequences, or the future, or the past, or our things, our car, or our phone, or our house. We all have that urge sometimes to let all that go.”
Newcomer director/writer Spencer Susser provides a unique look at a clichéd format that Hollywood beats regularly into the ground. This time it’s a family frozen in a lifeless melancholy in the midst of the death of their loved one.
There’s husband and father Paul Forney (Rainn Wilson), who represents the depressive state of grief and would much rather pop pills, and sleep the day away than go to a local group therapy. There’s the grandmother (Piper Laurie), who’s sick herself, and feels helpless and is mostly clueless as to what’s going on in her own home. At the center of the story is 13-year-old T.J. (Devin Brochu) who pretty much escapes his grief by taking advantage of the new situation he’s stumbled into as an unsupervised child. In the first few opening scenes he’s seen going on joy rides on his bike, following his mother’s wrecked car to the junk yard, trespassing on a construction site, and throwing a rock through the window of an unfinished house where the protagonist Hesher (or antagonist, however you view him) is squatting.
Enter Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a man who wears his name in his head banging, tattoo bearing, pyromaniac antics. Often clinging to the limiting gravity of situations and the chaos he can bring, he does what he wants, when he wants it, and makes no grand apologies for it. If he does have words of remorse it’s always in the vein of some other metaphorical insight that comes out in the form of a sexual anecdote.
His effect on the Forney’s begins when he parks himself on their couch after following T.J. home from school. Since it’s evident that T.J. is neglected Hesher forcefully takes T.J under his wing, and during his time with the boy he exposes him to porn, sets fire to a stranger’s pool, and knowingly seduces the much older object of T.J.’s puppy love affection, Nicole (Natalie Portman), without any verbal explanation as to why,
In many ways Hesher is the full embodiment of chaos and the brash but logical perspective that the Forney family needs after the sudden death of their beloved mother and wife. In other ways, he’s nothing what he looks like, and is more of a metaphysical spirit guiding the family to a deeper understanding of grief and rising above it, which in one instance involves T.J. breaking into the house of his bully and threatening his life. The timid boy who up until then ignored his father’s grief verbally fights back against his father’s ambivalent behavior and the way he chooses to grieve stating, “I’m sitting in a room full of losers by myself,” he says of group therapy. The exchange is heated and the energy in the room is palpable, and it’s just enough to shake the family out from under the weight of the grief they’re helplessly settling in.
Hesher, like the film itself, brilliantly defies to be characterized as one thing. On paper a character that takes part in such deplorable acts as Hesher would be seen as one that garners an apathetic reaction from the audience. Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, however, balances the careful line of playing him wildly unhinged, yet knows when to pull back and reveal a quiet lark wise beyond his years to make this revolting character show moments of humanity.
Indeed, the heart amongst the somber, almost drab tone of the film lives in the small exchanges between Hesher and the grandmother. From scene to scene the character goes from one extreme to the other, but with the elder lady he reveals himself as a snake outsmarted by a defiant mouse.
If this film has any flaws it’s that the complexities of its side characters outshine T.J. and his father. The wild Hesher and the charming Nicole downplays the main characters completely, making them bland and in the end hard to care about, even though the way they deal with their situation is uncomfortable to watch. Susser saved this from being the film’s downfall in the way he chose to pair the characters.
Take, for instance, the mousy store clerk, Nicole. When Hesher and T.J. decide to follow her, and witness her in a fender bender, it’s revealed that she has practically no money and no car insurance. The exchange a few minutes later when she vents in her car to T.J. makes him far more interesting sitting there being effected by her ordinary words works in his favor. Even though Portman, who usually dominates everything she’s in had little to do with the overall story, the material that Sussman cleverly peppered her with moved the story along and if anything made T.J. relateable.
We don’t see what kind of a woman this absent character was, and the flashes that T.J. experiences as he slips into his parents wrecked car at the junkyard are hardly sympathetic. However, the most important scene paints the family for who they were, two normal parents arguing, and then singing their problems away.
The fleeting memory ends with a bang. There’s no big crescendo, or slow motioned panning of the camera, it happened in an instant much like the reality of living one second and being gone in the next. The simplicity of the moments is the secret gem to what makes this film work on many levels—it doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not.
For those who still find Hesher a mysterious figure, the DVD’s bonus features provide a closer look into the man, complete with personal touches of chalk board drawings of nude females, fire, and a schizophrenic-like storyboard layouts on every menu. Go beyond the menu to the “extra shit” (lingo provided by the character, of course), and there’s “teaser channels” which features a TV screen, flipping back and forth of what Hesher would watch (random television scenes, and porn), followed by promotional sites on facebook for the film.
The most unique feature is Hesher’s sketch book, an interactive flip book of sketches from the character’s mind (a middle finger, boobs, an underwear clad butt, boobs on a carton of milk, amongst other disturbing doodles of a satyric filled mind. The most insightful piece of bonus material comes from a seven minute featurette from the cast and crew, who in their best words try to define Hesher. While actress and producer, Portman, had a hard time with describing the complex character, actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt describes him , “A bizarre, clown of a caretaker. We even compared him to Mary Poppins.” In the end, it’s co-writer and director Spencer Susser who claims there’s no one way to view Hesher.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.
// Short Ends and Leader
"Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is a darkly funny and philosophical cyberpunk locked-room thriller that tangles with the greatest sci-fi puzzle: What does it mean to be human?READ the article