NAMING YOUR BOOK after a line from the Velvet Underground's "Heroin" is pretty much a giveaway as to the druggy- spiritual aspirations contained within. Denis Johnson's 1992 collection of stories concerns one such pilgrim, Fuckhead, whose true love Michelle appraises him correctly: "You talk nonstop." And it's a difficult task to adapt his chatterbox, elliptical narration with its herky-jerky, stop-start rhythms to the big screen, which is supposed to be about showing, not telling. In the main, however, New Zealand director Alison Maclean (Crush) succeeds quite nicely, aided in no small part by the central role filled so charismatically by Billy Crudup (Without Limits, Waking the Dead).
directed by Alison Maclean
with Billy Crudup, Samantha Morton, Denis Leary, Jack Black, Holly Hunter, and Dennis Hopper
opens July 7 at Harvard Exit
We've been in this seedy early-'70s drug-and-crime milieu before, of course, and Gus Van Sant's superior 1989 Drugstore Cowboy is an obvious companion to—and seeming influence upon—Jesus' Son. But while Matt Dillon's character was given to brooding, nodding off, and withdrawal, Crudup's clumsy, goofy protagonist is all extroversion; he's an active seeker—even if he's not sure what he's seeking. For a while it seems to be Michelle (Samantha Morton, who's regained her voice after Sweet and Lowdown), but mainly it's smack. "All this work is messing with my high," he complains during a burglary with a fellow junkie (Denis Leary). It's a good sequence, which is soon topped by a hilarious bit where Fuckhead and a speed freak pal (Jack Black of High Fidelity) attempt to cope as ER orderlies. (This segment alone justifies the price of admission.)
Maclean's eye for period detail is also enjoyable (the plaids, sideburns, and sweaters recently returned to fashion), and no '70s drug film would be complete without the requisite Neil Young song. Every high entails a crash, however, as Michelle anticipates. "We're wrecking like trains," she tells Fuckhead, who's not smart enough to share her premonitions, though he does have a cheerful appreciation of the moment; his enthusiasm suggests the giddiness and near-innocence of a bygone drug culture now receded into memory.
In its willfully quirky, picaresque manner, Jesus Son' intersperses Fuckhead's adventures with his ecstatic visions, hallucinations that suggest an unmet need that junk can't fulfill. He's also obsessed with death, or the seeming valence between death and life; but as the film takes a serious turn, his epiphanies don't really add up to anything. There's a longing and a sadness that don't quite gibe with Son's earlier episodes, yet Holly Hunter and the promise of redemption are reward enough for those willing to accompany our hero along his crooked spiritual path.