It is rare that I am able to take films about drug abuse very seriously. Nine times out ten, they are preachy and judgmental rather than honest and insightful. Perhaps because I’ve lived with a drug dealer (although I didn’t do the drugs), I know that the issues here aren’t as black and white as the vast majority of drug films make it out to be. I know just how much damage drugs can wreak in a family. On my mother’s side of the family (though not actually my mother), drug abuse was/is a serious issue. However, 90% of films on the subject seem to not realize the subtleties of the issue (or that there are people out there who can get along perfectly fine while using drugs in a responsible way) and want to preach to audiences that all drugs are bad all of the time. There are no exceptions. So, it’s interesting to find a film which certainly seems to come down hard on drug use (especially harder stuff like heroine and falling prey to addiction) that manages to not be an overbearing, moralizing affair. I’m not entirely sure if Jesus’ Son is as insightful and poetic as its writers/director intended but it’s a surreal stream-of-conscious film that accurately captures the downward spiral life of a homeless, drug addicted drifter in the 1970s.
Following about four or five years in the life of the sensitive fuck-up known only as Fuck Head (Almost Famous’ Billy Crudup), Jesus’ Son is a sprawling, non-linear (slightly unfocused) story of one man’s descent into the darkest depths of addiction, his desire (and inability) to emotionally connect with those around him, and his one last chance to get himself out of the gutter. The film takes place through a series of often unrelated, episodes which put together one piece of the puzzle of FH’s fucked up life, and it jumps back and forth through the many years the film covers (often mid-scene as FH’s narration realizes he skipped some important detail). We meet his junkie girlfriend Michelle (Synecdoche, New York‘s Samantha Morton) who introduces him to heroin although she realizes she needs to get clean as he sinks deeper and deeper into depravity. We follow FH’s ill-fated attempts to work in the emergency ward of a hospital along the mentally unhinged orderly played by Jack Black who enables FH’s addiction even though he’s trying to stay clean. We see him after a break-up with Michelle hitch-hiking across the country only to be in a nearly fatal car-wreck where only he and the baby of the family he’s riding with survives.Through out it all, FH is fueled by heroin (and other drugs), loneliness, and his need to atone for his mistakes and make a connection with anyone, anyway he knows how (even if that means being a peeping tom on a family of Mennonites because he covets their potential happiness).
Although the ultimate message of the film is uplifting and hopeful, Jesus’ Son is not for the faint of heart. Co-written by Rampart and The Messenger‘s Oren Moverman, the film has the gritty, lived-in quality you’ve come to expect from his other films (and it was based off a novel which I’m sure provided many of the most immersive details). You see graphic scenes of heroine use. You see overdoses (several). There’s a darkly comic scene where one of FH’s junkie friends shot another junkie (on accident) but they were all too stoned to think to take the man to the hospital. You see the physical toll that heavy drug use takes on the body as the otherwise attractive Billy Crudup (he’s really a cross between Tom Cruise and Christian Bale) into a skeletal, beat up shell of a human being (and the same thing happens to the otherwise [unconventionally] pretty Samantha Morton). While not every scene is a winner, the episodic, vignette style of the film means that certain moments shine through stronger than others. There’s a scene where FH and Jack Black’s Georgie accidentally run over a bunny rabbit. Georgie runs back to collect the rabbit for food but instead cuts out baby bunnies from the rabbit’s stomach. The pair take a shit ton of drugs and despite a snow storm, frolic outdoors trying to care for the bunnies. However, the next morning, when they wake up, we discover that the bunnies (which FH had been keeping in his shirt to keep them warm) had gotten behind FH and he squashed him. The movie is chock full of small (and major) tragedies like that which will stick with me for a while.
I think Billy Crudup is a pretty under-rated actor. He was actually in one of the first movies I ever reviewed on here (Waking the Dead), and he definitely doesn’t get the respect he deserves. This is coming from a straight man, but as good looking and talented as he is, I’m always shocked that he hasn’t had a more fruitful career. This is a weird performance. Not Eric Roberts in The Pope of Greenwich Village weird but it’s strange enough that I could see this being very off-putting to the casual viewer who won’t get what Crudup is trying to accomplish. He’s really capturing the frazzled, burnt out mind set of a kid who’s ingested every drug that comes his way the last 10 years. It makes his performance have FH come off like a bit of a simpleton but you would be too if your blood was more heroin than hemoglobin. However, he didn’t just show FH stumbling through life in his drug-addled haze. We also saw sparks of the sensitivity that makes him such a magnetic and sympathetic protagonist (and why we’re still able to root for him even after he’s destroyed everything around him). This is the second Samantha Morton performance I’ve seen in the last week or so and it was excellent as she was inSynecdoche, New York. Holly Hunter also had a smaller (but pivotal) role towards the end of the film as another recovering addict that FH meets and falls for when he enters a rehab clinic after hitting rock bottom.
However, as I mentioned early, the film is based on a book. The book is a collection of short stories. I’ve never read the book but if I had to wager, I’d guess that the film’s writers just put FH into all of these different stories because the film can be a bit of a jumbled mess. There’s not a lot of cohesion here, and until the very end of the movie, you are never fully able to tell whether a character will be important or just a minor player in larger events. Maybe the film’s lack of focus is supposed to reflect FH’s own divided mental state, but that didn’t make the film any less consistent. Some scenes were brilliant. Some fell flat and it was all the more apparent because of the strength of the better scenes. Still, I recommend the film to fans of independent cinema as well as movies that take a serious and honest look at the issues of addiction and the escapism of drug abuse.
Final Score: B