Jesus’ Son, directed by Alison Maclean and adapted from a collection of interrelated short stories by Denis Johnson, has the kind of splintered and spacey narrative one might expect from a character named Fuckhead.
As played by Billy Crudup, Fuckhead is a sweetly innocent young man drifting through a blighted early-’70s Midwestern subculture of losers, boozers and heavy users, a light-as-a-feather spirit who moves through the world without ever being quite in it. Despite the implications of the film’s title, which comes from Lou Reed’s song “Heroin,” Fuckhead is only sometimes and incidentally a junkie. Drugs, for him, seem less a buffer against a harsh reality than a way of enhancing his natural sense of clueless wonderment. He’s like an eternal child, absorbing tragedy and despair without hardening.
In order to render Fuckhead’s point of view, the film alternates between the darkly comic and the genuinely grim, while keeping a steady and deadpan gaze. This works best with the humorous bits, notably when Fuckhead and the alcoholic Wayne (Denis Leary) spend a manic day demolishing a house in order to get at the salable copper wires within its walls — and when Fuckhead and George (the always-reliable Jack Black) trip through a hallucinatory night that begins in a hospital emergency room where a man walks in with a knife embedded in his eye.
But the matter-of-factness which both reflects Fuckhead’s abiding passivity and heightens the basic absurdity of these scenes also manages to flatten out the more dramatic sequences, especially those involving Fuckhead and his girlfriend Michelle (Samantha Morton). Michelle is as desperate and doomed as Fuckhead is feckless and free to move on to his next reality, but her suffering seems to have wandered in from a more literal-minded film.
Still, she doesn’t bum our trip as Fuckhead blunders into the story’s low-keyed and unlikely third-act redemption, leaving us with the impression of a life less harrowing than whimsical. Like its hero, Jesus’ Son engages our sympathy while it flitters by barely touching the ground. It’s the feel-good junkie movie of the year.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].