Billy Crudup, Samantha Morton, Ben Shenkman, Michael Shannon
Denis Johnson, Elizabeth Cuthrell
In a stellar performance, Billy Crudup portrays the life of FH, a mellow man who, throughout the film "Jesus' Son," shares the story of his life. We learn how he became known as Fuckhead, and we learn about falling in love with Michelle, getting hooked on heroin, detox, moving out West, the 12-steps, learning to feel compassion, and the gentle, healing moments along the way.
The film's title eludes to both FH's drug use and spiritual enlightenment by referring to the short stories of Denis Johnson. Johnson writes in the epigraph to his short stories the lyrics the Velvet Underground song "Heroin." Upon first thought, it seems an odd choice, but it fits perfectly in this story of a man whose salvation is found throughout the journey of his life. "Jesus' Son" may be the consummate film about spirituality, and it is devoid of religiosity. FH's spirituality is not organized, and he is not baptized in any traditional sense. Instead, FH does what I envision Christ would have done...he finds the spirituality of every moment. He doesn't assign his truth to others, but simply and quietly lives it for himself. He sees beauty where others see ugliness, holiness where others see profane. He is a tad psychic and a tad psychotic. He is, quite simply profound.
Crudup gives a masterfully controlled performance here as FH. He shows us his deep humanness through his drug use, his poor choices, and his seeming apathy at times towards others. On the other hand, as he journeys through life we watch the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual transformation of FH come to life through Crudup's body language, his gestures, his varying vocal tones. Literally, every minute he is on screen is nothing short of brilliant.
The performances that surround Crudup are similarly excellent including the amazingly diverse Samantha Morton as Michelle, Ben Shenkman as Tom, and Michael Shannon as DunDun. The film features several notable cameos including Jack Black, Dennis Hopper, Denis Leary and Miranda July.
Alison Maclean directs the film with a strong sense of style to accompany the film's powerful script by Elizabeth Cuthrell based upon the works of Denis Johnson. Maclean's use of imagery throughout the film, even in the smallest of ways is a constant reinforcer to the themes of spirituality and redemption, while her cinematography is just the perfect blend of color and substance.
The film is challenged, at times, by the same issues that plagued Vincent Gallo's "The Brown Bunny." On a few occasions, the film drags to such a point that it becomes a distraction away from the scene, and there are also moments where it feels as if Maclean is simply trying too hard to push the message across. This is even more noticeable because of the casual pace of the film. Those sudden, abrupt pushes are a tad too jarring to the senses.
It is always tragic when a film of such quality as "Jesus' Son" falls under the radar of both box-office and critical acclaim. While I would never expect the Oscars to reward such a film as this, I find it appalling that the film received only one Independent Spirit nomination (for Crudup).
One of the joys of being a critic is that ever so often a film creeps up on you and just blows you away. "Jesus' Son" is such a film. Alison Maclean takes an uncommon approach to a common theme and comes up with a film that is nothing short of a revelation.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic