a review by Jeffrey Overstreet
FH is a really nice guy who smiles a lot. And he can’t say “no” to drugs.
Set in the early 70′s, Alison Maclean’s Jesus’ Son, based on a book by Denis Johnson, is a long, meandering journey alongside this drug-troubled young man as he drifts smiling into the lives of other junkies, drunkards and lost souls, befriends them, and then moves on, smiling, as they all plunge to their inevitable fates.
He is afflicted, at least in his own eyes, by a curse that dooms everything and everyone he touches. In one funny and disturbing episode, he and his friend run over a rabbit on the road, and FH rescues the pink, hairless, vulnerable babies from the mother’s broken carcass, only to have them suffer a worse fate later on. “FH” is an abbreviation for a derogatory nickname he has earned for his curse, which, unfortunately, his friends use against him frequently and violently when he messes things up.
Throughout the film, we want FH to work things out, to be free of his curse. We also want to see him escape the downward spiral of his drug habit. The two things exist apart from each other; his bad luck follows him no matter where he is with his habit, and he indulges in drugs even when things seem to be going his way. Perhaps the drugs started as a reaction to his fears, but this is not explored in the story. It would have been an interesting thing to explore.
In fact, I was frustrated throughout the film because it refused to explore much of anything. It just gave us this lackadaisical tour through aimless lives. Dennis Leary plays Wayne, an alcoholic who is selling his belongings just for the chance to “go to bed drunk tonight”. Like the other characters, he has strange unexplained pieces of his life that are initially arresting, but ultimately don’t enrich the story at all. Like the moment we see a naked woman parasailing over the town and discover she is Wayne’s ex-wife. Why is she naked and parasailing? Or is she just a drug hallucination? It’s a memorable moment, but the episode is held up as a curiosity and nothing more. Soon, the drunkard is a piece of FH’s history, and we’re on to the next strange environment, the next group of junkies.
The movie seems more interested in showing us the hero’s chaos, nightmares, and failures than it is interested in what’s wrong, what he might need, or what wisdom and responsibility are like once he learns to pursue them. We see the possibility for hope, for healing, throughout the film, especially when FH considers the simple routines of a Mennonite couple. But, as in all the other episodes, we come to find out they are unhappy and desperate too. While the movie seems to strike a tone of optimism, these chapters do little to give us much hope.
Billy Crudup is pleasant company throughout, playing FH’s disarmingly cheerful ignorance that never quite goes over-the-top, whereas many actors would have milked every scene for its pathos or its darkness. Samantha Morton gives a memorable, sad performance as his on-again/off-again girlfriend Michelle, careening between drug lows and romance highs. There are good turns as well from Jack Black, Dennis Hopper, and Holly Hunter.
The cinematography is leisurely and generous with its scenery. Only a couple of times does the film give in to the temptation of showing us the characters’ hallucination, a move that more often than not glorifies drugs rather than scaring anyone off. Fortunately, there’s also a good deal of honesty about the dark side of drugs as well, so I doubt anybody will be influenced to run out and try to be like FH.
But when all is said and done, and the film finds a note of bittersweet conclusion, I wonder why the movie needed to go on so long, why all these colorful threads remained so loose when they might have woven into an interesting story. That’s what’s missing… story.
Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas made its drug-abuse story a larger exploration of the political climate of its time. Trainspotting challenged us to see how a culture alienates and disenfranchises its youth, making drugs such an appealing escape, while at the same time depicting its terrible consequences. Jesus’ Son is a series of episodes that become almost as trivial and temporarily amusing as Saturday Night Live sketches, except that it’s hard to know whether to laugh at the absurdity of the developments or to grimace at the recklessness and illness that has brought them about.
Roger Ebert argues in defense of Jesus’ Son, saying that junkies live episodic lives, devoid of coherent arc and flow. Perhaps that’s how a junkie experiences life, but that doesn’t mean the audience can’t be given a larger perspective that makes this viewing a fruitful one. I want to know that the artist is exploring a theme, not just rambling on about highs and lows. I don’t think that means we need to watch movies that are devoid of coherent arc and flow.