Jesus’ Son, based on the episodic 1992 Denis Johnson book, is set in the seventies, and it looks as if it was made in the seventies, too. It has the scruffiness and saintly hippie aura that one associates with films from that era; Jack Nicholson might once have found himself well cast in it. Billy Crudup, who has something of the young Nicholson’s arrant verve and hyperbright eyes, plays a doper who goes by the nickname Fuckhead, or FH for short. Moving back and forth in time, the film follows FH from Iowa to Chicago to Phoenix, and his odyssey, from the pits of junkiedom to redemption, is, of course, intended symbolically. It’s a stoner’s Stations of the Cross.
FH attaches to himself a host of depraved malcontents: a man (Denis Leary) who destroys his own house in order to sell its scrap iron to pay for a few drinks; a zonked hospital orderly (Jack Black, from High Fidelity) who casually pulls a knife from the eye socket of a patient whose wife brutally attacked him; a sanatorium denizen (Dennis Hopper) whose mate has left tattoolike bullet-hole entry and exit marks on his face; a recovering alcoholic (Holly Hunter) whose men have all come to bizarre bad ends; a junkie waif (Samantha Morton) who shoots up in her run-down motel room while watching cartoons. FH presses on while everybody around him OD’s or skids into oblivion. He seems blessed, and yet the blessing itself is a joke: Why is this smiley goofball spared? He’s living proof of God’s wit.
Alison Maclean, who directed, has a nice feeling for the poetics of disarray and a generous, intuitive way with actors. Parts of this film play like good, early Gus Van Sant, particularly Drugstore Cowboy, which also had a screwy blastedness. As the junkie Michelle, Samantha Morton still has the fragile intensity she demonstrated in Sweet and Lowdown and Dreaming of Joseph Lees, but added to it is an urchin’s spunk and a frighteningly sensual pathos; this snaggletoothed doper always seems to be very close to us and yet far away. Billy Crudup lifts the film out of the flossy oh-wow-ness that it otherwise often sinks into. The great thing about FH is that though he’s a woozy drifter, his eyes, his face are always shockingly alive. Crudup has a great physicality, and he gives FH’s gangliness a loose-limbed lyricism.
Jesus’ Son is pretty frazzled stuff whenever Crudup and Morton aren’t around. Not all of that seventies scruffiness was such a good thing, even in the seventies; and I can’t say that I’m terribly nostalgic for something I wasn’t all that crazy about to begin with. What’s missing from this new film is the perspective that might make it function as more than an artful memory jog. Jesus’ Son is like something that came out of a time capsule, and it’s a bit soon to be excavating, and celebrating, the artifacts of that era.