Review: Jesus’ Son (dir. Alison Maclean)

[Cross-posted from Kamera, and written in late 1999/early 2000]

Taking its form from the darkly picaresque collection of short stories by Denis Johnson, which in turn takes its name from the Velvet Underground’s ‘Heroin’, Jesus’ Son finds Billy Crudup’s FH (short for Fuckhead, referring to his unerring ability to mess up things for himself and everyone around him) talking us through his well-meaning but largely incompetent attempts to live his life. As he passes through love, with Michelle (Samantha Morton) and with Mira (Holly Hunter), heroin addiction, petty crime, mental imbalance and rehabilitation, we follow FH with humour, wonder and occasionally horror, until he finds a measure of personal redemption in his work editing the newsletter for a local nursing home.

Director Alison Maclean displays a light touch throughout, and avoids the twin pitfalls of films about drug use: didactic portentousness and glamourisation. Aided by a fine creative team, a strong script and a talented cast bolstered by celebrity cameos, Maclean builds an intelligent, humorous and compassionate story out of the episodes related by FH, much of whose narration is taken verbatim from Denis Johnson’s book.

The title’s reference to Jesus is not idle: in the iconography of the junky, the distance from a monkey to a crucifix on his back is a short one and there are frequent oblique references to Christ and Christian conduct in the film. Once FH starts working at the nursing home, his initial reluctance to interact with his charges is turned, with encouragement from the head nurse to ‘lay [his] hands on them’, into a tactile choreography, and some patients are calmed at his touch.

‘There’s a price to be paid for dreaming,’ growls one of these inmates towards the end of the film, and for FH this price is exacted repeatedly and often. The film presents us with a series of false epiphanies, dreams and visions and, as we pass through the determining episodes of his youth, we see, through FH’s eyes, the frayed and unravelling endings of his shambolic, inept life becoming gradually less frayed as he makes personal and social progress.

Billy Crudup gives a fine performance as FH and plays his wide-eyed anti-hero seeking his salvation with charm and economy. Samantha Morton, whose stock has been rising steadily since her excoriating debut in Under the Skin, turns in another intelligent portrayal of serial instability as Michelle. The instant and lasting connection she forms with FH, gaining him, in the process, his moniker, provides the emotional backbone to the film. Denis Leary, Dennis Hopper and Holly Hunter put in solid cameo performances and Jack Black, as FH’s hospital co-worker Georgie, is a true scene-stealer.

Intelligently and intuitively directed, Jesus’ Son moves from the comically banal and degrading to the startlingly hallucinatory with considerable dexterity. Maclean has lost none of her eye for the uncanny since her 1992 debut feature, Crush, and in her skilled handling of her forgetful and sometimes downright unreliable narrator, she seems to revel in the freedom of Jesus’ Son’s picaresque narrative.

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