Jesus' Son

This is more a collection of well-observed moments and vignettes than a conventionally plotted chronicle.

Jesus' Son

Director: Alison Maclean
Cast: Billy Crudup, Samantha Morton, Denis Leary, Jack Black, Dennis Hopper, Holly Hunter
Distributor: Lionsgate
Rated: R
Year: 1999
US DVD release date: 2009-06-23

Before you read any further it may be best to clear up any preconceived notions one may have about a film titled Jesus’ Son. This is not an overtly religious or spiritual film. This is not a simple comedy, drama or romance. This is not a buddy road trip movie. This is not a story about wayward souls, drugs and junkie love. This is not a cautionary tale or a glamorization of a certain kind of lifestyle. This is not a heartwarming tale of redemption and hope. This is just a film. All clear? Good.

While it is far too easy to say that Jesus’ Son is simultaneously all and none of the above it is, I’m afraid, the truth. Based on a collection of short stories by Denis Johnson Jesus’ Son tells the story of Fuckhead (FH), a young man whose clever sobriquet pretty much explains his unique position in life. Set in the early ‘70s, the film follows FH (Billy Crudup) as he journeys through addiction, love and life.

The narrative of the film, like FH himself, is intentionally fragmentary, circular and confused. FH, as both the protagonist and narrator of the film, is constantly doubling back, jumping ahead and spinning around as he makes his way through his story. Dismissing with a traditional, linear format to tell the tale of a muddled young man making his way through the fog of drug addiction and love is an obvious creative choice, but one that director Alison Maclean uses with great effect.

As a movie Jesus’ Son is more a collection of well-observed moments and vignettes than a conventionally plotted chronicle. The film gathers its strength and gains its narrative unity through its characters and relationships. No relationship is perhaps more critical to FH’s story and development than his tortured affair with Michelle (Samantha Morton), a combustible, self-destructing storm of sexual energy and wayward desire. Though their tenuous, volatile romance is formed from a mutual sense of loss, suffering and undefinable need there is a genuine love and tenderness at its heart.

As the lover’s relationship progresses through its necessarily tragic phases, FH stumbles through a succession of evermore bizarre events populated by a cast of memorably odd characters. There is his friend Wayne (Denis Leary), who enlists FH’s help in tearing down the walls of his abandoned home to find copper wire to sell for scrap, and Georgie (Jack Black) a hospital orderly whose unique skills with a knife qualify him to either be a very gifted surgeon or a frighteningly precise killer. These hallucinatory episodes are wonderfully absurd and flow with an easy and subversive humor.

As Jesus’ Son progresses from FH’s meandering adventures in self-destruction to perplexed recovery, the film loses a bit of its momentum. As the film in no way romanticizes the empty wasteland of addiction, it cannot be argued that once FH is extricated from the destructive undertow of drugs that the film loses its charm. Nor is it the case that this latter phase of his journey is any less compelling but, rather, that some of FH’s (and the film’s) vital energy has been sacrificed for the sake of simple anecdotal completion.

Ultimately what binds Jesus’ Son together and makes it so memorable is the source material of Mr. Johnson’s stories and the glimmering talent of its two main stars, Mr. Crudup and Ms. Morton. Although each of their characters is feckless, maddeningly irresponsible, and unnecessarily naïve, both actors infuse their performances with a power, respect and intelligence that reveals the humanity, grace and charm of these two troubled souls.

Originally released in 1999, Jesus’ Son garnered strong critical support (it won the Little Golden Lion Award at the 1999 Venice Film Festival) but limited commercial success. It was one of the earliest cinematic platforms showcasing the talents of both Billy Crudup and Samantha Morton -- two actors who are still criminally overlooked by an appreciative wider audience -- and certainly contributed in establishing them as among the most gifted actors of their generation.

Thus, it is quite easy to understand why Lions Gate chose to re-issue the film on DVD for its tenth anniversary. What is less clear and rather maddening, however, is their decision to not include any extras or technical upgrades with the feature. It is more than lazy and outright negligent that Lions Gate would pass up an opportunity to highlight a wonderful, albeit idiosyncratic, movie that shines with individuality and charm.

The tenth anniversary edition of Jesus’ Son on DVD may lack a certain excitement in its re-packaged release, but that is hardly an excuse for audiences to miss out on experiencing the pleasures of this uniquely beautiful film.






The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.