August 26, 2011

Reader's Choice: Jesus' Son (1999)

Directed by Alison Maclean. Starring Billy Crudup ("FH"), Samantha Morton ("Michelle"), Denis Leary ("Wayne"), and Jack Black ("Georgie"). Rated R.

Source: Region 1 DVD (Lionsgate)
Running time: 01:47:37
Country: USA

Picked by J.D.

JESUS' SON is set in the 70's, and in it our lead character FH ("Fuck Head") is a man with a vague history who's trying to find his place in the world. Played wonderfully by Billy Crudup, he initially comes across as a down on his luck kinda guy, but it's more a case of him being someone whose care-free attitude results in him constantly screwing everything up. The film opens with him in the backseat of a car that proceeds to collide head-on with another vehicle. It's revealed sooner than later than the family he caught a ride with had died, with the exception of their infant child, whom he saved. The film then goes back in a time a few years to 1971, where FH meets the love of his life, Michelle, who gets him hooked on smack. Like most everything else in the film, their initial courtship is rather sudden, random, and nonchalant.

There's really not a whole lot else to say in terms of the plot because, well, there's not much of a plot to speak of in the first place. Once the doomed love story involving FH and Michelle is established, most of the film consists of seemingly random encounters between FH and a number of strange people, which unfold as various chapters of FH's life throughout what seems like a five year span, give or take. With the exception of the car crash, the story is presented in chronological order.

And now comes the part where I analyze the film and, for all I know, state the obvious. When it was all said and done, I interpreted JESUS' SON as being symbolic of FH's life flashing before his eyes, which, to me, explains the film's incoherent, dreamlike structure. An aspect of the story that backs this theory up is that most of the people who FH comes in contact with at some point or another either die in an abrupt manner or completely disappear from the story, never to be referenced to again. I see the characters being consistently dropped as being representative of FH's memories of the friends and acquaintances he's known in his life slowly fading away, with Michelle being the exception for obvious reasons. There are also a couple of very minor characters (one of whom is impossible not to miss despite appearing for only a few seconds) who seem to be symbolic of certain Biblical figures. Another telling piece of evidence is the classic horror film that's projected onto a screen that suddenly appears in a cemetery (pictured below).

On a side note, there's a recurring theme of deafness. One of the random characters who appears early in the film is deaf. There's a street sign in the background that warns motorists of deaf children in the surrounding area during one of the scenes involving Crudup and Denis Leary's characters. Towards the end of the film, there's a deaf interpreter at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting.

Getting back to the random characters who show up throughout the film, most of them are played by an interesting collection of actors. Denis Leary, who I already mentioned, Jack Black (back when he was still a cult actor), the late Dennis Hopper, Holly Hunter, and "Mike Shannon" in classic show-stealing form as an eccentric character named Dundun. Also, I believe this is the only time I've ever seen Holly Hunter nude.

I don't know whether to classify JESUS' SON as a comedy, drama, tragedy, or all of the above, but what I can say is that it's a very odd, unique, and quirky film. Because it lacks a plot, the film's pacing leaves much to be desired, and to be quite honest I found a majority of the film to be unimpressive and incredibly boring. However, at a certain point it became clear that there was a lot more going on underneath the film's exterior of a junkie who's seemingly trying to get his life in order (and failing miserably) while balancing a relationship; by the time it was over I realized I had watched something truly special. JESUS' SON is one of the most genuinely endearing and sweetest films I've ever seen, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't get a little choked up at the end. The thing is, I can't put my finger on why exactly. I grew very attached to the characters, especially FH, who I can relate to in some respects. I wondered why all of these interesting characters were showing up and being taken away right when I got a chance to know them, but in retrospect I believe it's the film's way of forcing acceptance onto both the viewer and FH, which I realize sounds very pretentious. There's also a sense of hope and an emphasis on celebrating life, despite the lead character coming across almost as hopeless and the film being full of loss and tragedy.

I've rambled on long enough, and quite frankly I don't know how to end this review, so I'll just say that this is an inherently divisive film, but I personally fell in love with it and can't recommend it highly enough. In certain hands this film could have been an absolute mess, but fortunately the funny, sad, and downright bizarre and surreal moments are balanced very well. The performances are great throughout, and the musical score in particular is wonderful. And, lest we forget, there's one hell of a supporting cast here.

Score: 7.5


  1. Glad to see that you liked this film and that it affected you as much as it did. I always felt that JESUS' SON would make a great double bill with DRUGSTORE COWBOY as they cover a lot of the same ground and explore a lot of the same themes.

    I agree with your analysis of the film and that was the way I intreprented it also.

    This also may be my fave film of Samantha Morton. She was so good as Michelle and the chemistry she had with Billy Crudup was fantastic.

  2. Thanks for the excellent pick, JD! Yeah I enjoyed it quite a bit, but it almost lost me during the first half or so. Glad I stuck it out.

    Samantha Morton isn't a favorite of mine, but she picks interesting projects. I liked her a lot in MISTER LONELY and CONTROL.