was hitching a ride,” goes the weary voice-over, “looking for my girlfriend Michelle.” The road is gray, the sky grim, the speaker scraggly. Wrapped in a sleeping bag, his thumb out and his face unshaven, he looks for all the world like he’s on his way to that infamous nowhere, the one that passes as social commentary in a lot of small, arty movies. To an extent, this is true: this opening scene in Jesus’ Son makes it look like one of those movies, setting up a quirky journey of self-discovery for a restless, hardluck soul, stubborn and melancholy, lonely to the end.
Billy Crudup, Samantha Morton, Denis Leary, Jack Black, Will Patton, Greg Germann, Holly Hunter, Dennis Hopper
(Lions Gate Films)
Alison Maclean’s new movie does all this, throwing in some heavy-handed religious iconography and trendy cameos (by, among others, too-cool-for-school Jack Black and Ally McBeal‘s Greg Germann), to boot. But the movie renders these standard themes and devices in a fragmented, untidy way that makes its rather pedestrian plot based on an acclaimed, semi-autobiographical short story collection by Denis Johnson considerably more interesting, or maybe just more perverse, than might seem at first. Take, for example, the fact of that scruffy narrator-protagonist’s name, Fuckhead (played by the ever-adventurous Billy Crudup). Or the fact that he never seems quite in control of the story he’s telling (attributable in part to his rapid descent into full-blown heroin addiction), that his relationship with fellow junkie Michelle (Samantha Morton) remains disturbing throughout, or even that the film takes no apparent interest in making sense of its protagonists’ self-destructive behaviors.
This isn’t to say that Jesus’ Son ignores the self-delusion and selfishness of its charismatic addicts. To the contrary, like other intelligent junkie movies meaning, the appropriately complex ones like Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho or Danny Boyle and John Hodge’s Trainspotting Jesus’ Son has a certain respect for the very real and occasionally euphoric hell experienced by most addicts. It doesn’t treat them as titillating objects so much as subjects in their own right, screwed up, produced by and within a time typically rendered through a nostalgic haze. The fact that Fuckhead is an asshole most of the time doesn’t make him unlikable so much as it makes him representative, of an era-bound idealism and sensitivity, a sense of privilege born of his race, class, and gender.
Fuckhead is early on established as an unreliable and irresponsible narrator. Soon after you first spot him on the gray rainy road, he’s picked up, by a station wagon no less, complete with parents and children. As he gets into the car, Fuckhead intuits or recalls his sense of time appears to work in several directions at once, forward and back and across the wreck that soon besets them. “I knew we’d have an accident in the storm,” he sighs. “I didn’t care.” Slipping into the shadows of the backseat, wasted, he’s hardly touched by the chaos rendered through artful shadows and a quick zip to the hospital, where the mother shrieks on learning that her children are dead. Marveling at her capacity for self-expression, the laconic Fuckhead absorbs her pain as if it’s his own: “I’ve been looking for that feeling everywhere,” he sighs, before shifting the narrative track to a kind of faux origin story, that is, how and when he met his missing girlfriend Michelle. And with that, Fuckhead falls deeply and in a vaguely christlike manner into yet another fragment from his past.
It’s not surprising that this wayward character would appear in an Alison Maclean movie, as a means to explore breakdowns of communication and subjectivity. Since making several shorts and a brilliant first feature, 1992’s Crush, the New Zealand native has busied herself with directing reputable television (a popular video for Natalie Imbruglia, a piece of HBO’s Subway Stories, an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street, a couple of Sex and the Citys). Much like Crush, Jesus’ Son doesn’t give you a character with whom to identify easily. Fuckhead’s romantic reconstruction of his first encounter with the vivacious Michelle is structured so that all you see is his half-embarrassed, half-titillated face in a fuzzy foreground, while her torso dances in and out of the frame. A few seconds later, they’re locked in a stand-up fuck behind her boyfriend’s house, where they’ve just met.
Fuckhead doesn’t stand much on propriety, conscience or even sentiment, for that matter. And later, when a tangle among dealer-junkie friends leads to Michelle’s boyfriend’s rather nasty death (bleeding to death after being shot), Fuckhead finds himself commended for being the only acquaintance who tries to save the guy’s pathetic life. It’s not that anyone makes a moral judgment, to help or not to help; it’s more that no one is able to feel or do much of anything, so that Fuckhead’s half-assed effort becomes the single outstanding act, for which he’s eventually rewarded with attention from Michelle. She introduces him to heroin and from then on, their relationship becomes desirous and painful, a sometimes sensuous and often agitated ordeal, bouncing between sexual, emotional, and chemical highs, and plummets toward that frightening, beckoning nowhere.
Almost as respites from his bouts with Michelle, whom he clearly sees as the love of his life (though she occupies only a small section of Johnson’s book), Fuckhead has adventures with other characters, structured as part of his journey, both internal and on the road, as he travels from Iowa City to Arizona, where he ends up working as aide in a retirement home. Along this muddled route, he spends time with the energetic addict Georgie (Black); they work in a hospital emergency room where they have access to too many drugs and one especially bizarre experience with a man who has a knife in his head. Other memorable incidents involve Fuckhead’s buddy Wayne (Denis Leary), who rips out the wiring in his own house to sell for scrap, and a bit of hardcore survival story-sharing with an aging, hospitalized addict played by Dennis Hopper (who, of course, brings his own aging addict baggage to the role).
For me, however, Fuckhead’s most disturbing episodes have to do with Michelle’s (inevitable) overdose and a Mennonite couple. The former is staged as a kind of ritual cleansing scene for him (she pays the high price for his self-knowledge), unsurprisingly and ironically, as she has saved him during his own overdose earlier in the film. The latter is perhaps the most extreme illustration of Fuckhead’s relentless self-absorption, as he becomes entranced with her singing in the shower (which is, admittedly, quite lovely and soothing), and so assumes the thoughtless kind of privilege imaginable only to those who don’t deal with boundaries and oppressions on a daily basis. He peeps through the couple’s window while they eat dinner and argue, and finally wanders inside one day, while she’s home alone, singing in the shower. The husband comes through the door just at that moment, and Fuckhead scrabbles his way back out, not so much apologizing as suddenly coming back to himself, realizing what he’s doing and where his body is. And this is the film’s amazing moment (or maybe, one of several), this sudden self-consciousness, so fleeting, so limited, so unclear. It takes you off guard, and then it’s gone.
It’s this lack of self-consciousness, or more precisely, an incapacity to recognize other people as anything other than objects affording him pleasure or pain, that best describes Fuckhead’s erratic life (and, if you think about it, moviewatching). The elegance of Maclean’s film, however, lies in its refusal to judge Fuckhead for his many moral and emotional failings, or to grant him a clear redemption or new direction, both tactics that a more regular movie might take, in an effort to make its viewers feel better, or worse, or something specific. That Jesus’ Son doesn’t offer such standard resolution makes it frustrating but also provocative, as it asks you to rethink your own expectations of character, narrative, and what passes for moral principal.