Jesus' Son (1999) ** 1/2
Directed by Alison Maclean. Written by Elizabeth Cuthtrell, David Urrutia, Oren Moverman, from the eponymous book of short stories by Denis Johnson. Cinematography, Adam Kimmel. Editing, Stuart Levy and Geraldine Peroni. Music, Joe Henry. Produced by Margot Bridger, Elizabeth Cuthrell, Lydia Dean-Pilcher. Cast: Billy Crudup (FH), Samantha Morton (Michelle), Denis Leary (Wayne), Jack Black (Georgie), Will Patton (John Smith), Greg Germann (Dr.Shanis), Holly Hunter (Mira), Dennis Hopper (Bill), et al. A Lion's Gate release. 107 minutes. Rated R.
In her second feature (after the interesting, made-in-New Zealand "Crush" of 1992), Director Maclean has good company, especially the steadily up-and-coming Billy Crudup and Samantha Morton. But is Denis Johnson's source book an ally? It's a collection of short stories with fairly personal, strong and poignant passages about druggies in the 1970s. This sort of thing does not translate easily --if at all --into a movie stream, a plot, a continuity. The film does try however.
The title came from a Lou Reed song called "Heroin" in which the lyrics go "When I'm rushing on my run, and I feel just like Jesus' Son..."
Billy Crudup plays FH, which stands for F---Head, which comes from anything that can go wrong around the man, doing so. Starting with Iowa City in the 70s, FH narrates several episodes in the fragmented, zig-zag way that so many sober people use when telling a story. Here it is reinforced by the influence of drugs on users.
The characters around FH are, like him, marginal to "average-standard" society, their doings and non-deeds are unreal or surreal, hallucinatory, with visions and all sorts of oddities. As FH (and others) move around the film is more bizarresque than picaresque, and a blackly humorous, tenuous but perceptibly present link to the old (yet very alive in independent films) Theater of the Absurd and to the humor of Jean-Luc Godard.
The main event in FH's micro-odyssey is his meeting and falling in love with Michelle, who shoots heroin. Before those two got together, FH was clean of hard drugs and something close to a slacker. But when the new twosome is formed, Michelle brings the young man to the Big H. Their relationship is on and off, often tumultuous, often escalating to major fights. From vignettes to larger episodes, the milieu of the couple (or of FH when he finds himself alone) is drawn in episodic ways, sometimes convoluted (but not so that you cannot follow), slightly to heavily comic or ironical equivalents of acts, scenes, and bits within scenes. What's incoherent is not the story but the lifestyle of its people --including the mysterious sources of money for Michelle's and FH's drug purchases, hotel rooms and groceries. (It's all the weirder since there are no hints of their dealing drugs).
Michelle and the other types are not especially likable or moving, but there's something simpatico about FH that calls for our hopes that he can find a better life. He seems to get close to this when he moves to an Arizona hospital for a strange mix of inmates: old, terminally ill, gravely handicapped, near-healthy (cf. Dennis Hopper's small part), or imaginary invalids (cf. Holly Hunter who throws away her crutch after sex with FH). FH himsef is murkily drawn, part in rehab, part as a touchy-feely nurse to the denizens. Some added surrealism uses mysteriously an Amish couple, including a quick bit where FH touches the Amish wife magically, through a pane of glass.
The film goes from attaching moments and involving bits to indifferent or alienating ones, then bounces back into acceptability. How often and how much I will decide only after a second look in the non-near future. Absence may make the heart grow fonder, and surely makes the brain work better.