Director Alison Maclean’s philandering tale of a lost soul and people who keep on finding him unfolds in self-conscious fits and starts, with lots of backing up and speeding ahead to tell a wandering story the same way you might hear it in a bar.
Jesus’ Son is the kind of not-quite-pretentious movie where Billy Crudup’s title character never gets a name; people address him simply as Fuckhead, or FH. He’s a wandering cipher, a misfit who desperately wants to belong to something. He’s saved at one moment, hopelessly lost the next. Through drugs, robbery, peeping, sex and knife removal, Maclean watches his every misbegotten move with a morbid fascination.
We follow FH from Iowa City to Phoenix, meeting an array of dysfunctional characters in his peripatetic journey across the underbelly of the 1970s. He meets heroin-addicted Michelle (Samantha Morton) at an Iowa house party, where her bizarre dancing and cool knit cap turn FH all gooey inside. They begin one of those mutually destructive movie relationships that usually ends with the operatic deaths of one or both partners.
Maclean (Crush) has a flowing, lyrical style that borrows heavily but still has its own signature. She resorts to hand-held cameras a touch too quickly, but her interesting work with lights and angles carries her through. It helps that her actors here are all fascinating to film, from Crudup’s blank-eyed pretty-boy stare to Morton’s delightfully off-kilter face. Crudup and Morton both have talent to burn, and the film makes startling use of both actors’ signature strangeness.
More importantly, Maclean and her screenwriters skillfully adapt Denis Johnson’s short stories into an engaging fantasy that plays as comedy, but rarely wanders into caricature. FH’s life is a series of fractured vignettes, and his sense of displacement is among the film’s most powerful emotions.
Perhaps predictably, the love affair is the least convincing aspect of the story. Stringy-junkies-in-love is a theme that has been done to death in film and literature, and here, we never know why FH and Michelle are in love, other than they tell us so. “We’re like two trains wrecking,” Michelle says. Well, obviously. Their trip to an abortion clinic carries little emotional weight. We realize why both characters are interesting; we just never find out why they’re interested in each other.
Cameos abound in the film. Dennis Hopper gets one scene, and Denis Leary is tremendous as a doomed junkie. Holly Hunter—playing a scatty, semi-crippled bleach-blonde who attends FH’s AA meetings “just for the support”—takes off her top for a sex scene. Jack Black (High Fidelity) gets big laughs as a drugged-up hospital orderly who saves the day when a guy wanders in with a hunting knife stuck in his eye. Nobody’s around for more than 15 minutes except FH and Michelle, whose congenitally doomed romance finds a poignant end.
Jesus’ Son has a sense of humor that seems more joyous than most films of this ilk possess. Until the final frames, FH has no pretensions of being a Messiah or an oracle of his times; he’s content to float along the rancid banks of the river of life, glorying in small miracles and witty rejoinders.
But for all our observations, we never see anything from FH that we don’t already understand from the arresting first image of him standing on the side of the road, hitching a ride with a glazed look in his eyes. Crudup tries, but he spends the film’s final two-thirds reacting to his surroundings rather than trying to change them.
Maclean’s narrative is so scattered that even though we understand who FH is, we never know why he is who he is. We learn much about the world FH lives in, but we deserve to know more about the man himself.
Jesus’ Son HHH Directed by Alison Maclean. Starring Billy Crudup, Samantha Morton and Jack Black.