"Jesus' Son", the title of both the film and its source short story collection, comes from Lou Reed's song "Heroin."
There have been countless movies about drugs and drug abusers; so many that they can blur together. Jesus’ Son, written by Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia, and Oren Moverman and directed by Alison Maclean stands out from the pack because it is a survivor’s story without judgment or glamorization but with the disjointed, unreliable narration one might expect from an addict. The film is based on a collection of short stories written by Denis Johnson, so the film is episodic with only two characters recurring for more than one segment: the passive protagonist FH (short for f*ckhead), played with a sense of clueless wonder by Billy Crudup and Michelle, FH’s junkie on-again, off-again girlfriend (the luminous Samantha Morton). FH (he’s never actually called by those initials in the film, but let’s go with it for simplicity’s sake) tells us the story of five years of his life in the 1970s, meandering and back-tracking through them, much as his road trip in his VW bug meanders and back-tracks, as he tries to reconcile his thoughts about Michelle and his life. The impressive editing of the film allows us to feel the jumble of FH’s thoughts, and the disconnect caused by awkward segues between sections works because FH himself is so disconnected.
The cinematography is excellent, giving a gritty and grimy feel to this 1970s era world of drug addicts. The casting is equally wonderful, with Jack Black as a pill-popping orderly FH meets when Michelle is pregnant and he is trying to be responsible by working in an emergency room. This episode of the film was the most darkly funny with a hilariously gruesome scene involving a patient who “complains of a knife to the head.” Denis Leary’s episode is quieter and more haunting with the normally brash actor playing a stripped-down role, and Dennis Hopper’s is the most forgettable. Holly Hunter is a stand-out as possibly the unluckiest in love woman ever.
Despite the memorable cameos, Jesus’ Son belongs to FH and the people he comes to care about, especially Michelle. Billy Crudup is remarkable in his sympathetic portrayal of FH as an innocent loser stumbling through life not understanding his mistakes or how they happen. Samantha Morton makes the most of every line and expression, shining as a harder-core junkie who is even more lost than FH.
Jesus’ Son ends as it should, with no revelations, fanfare, or cloying sentimentality. It is not a morality play or parable; it is just the story of some of what happened to a twenty-something drug addict rambling his way through the early seventies and amazingly, while dark, the film is never depressing. There is plenty of humor, both broad and subtle, and an optimistic tone prevails. I think the secret is that FH is such a wide-eyed and affable screw-up. Even at his worst, he retains an appealing sweetness and sense of searching. This film is definitely not for everyone, as most of the humor is of the twisted variety, but it is an entertaining and thoughtful film that I enjoyed very much.
It should be noted that Jesus’ Son is a 1999 film and that this DVD is a new 2009 version that has no special features other than a theatrical trailer.