Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Nov 05, 2011 7:58 am 
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Giving death the finger

Ian Pugh of Film Freak Central calls the titular character, played with joyous panache by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, "an out-of-control golem conjured by an adolescent's directionless rage." That teenager is T.J. (the wonderfully authentic and understated Devin Brochu), a smallish 13-year-old with an angelic face who is reeling from the recent death of his mother in a car accident that happened when he was in the back and his father Paul Forney (Rainn Wilson) was driving. T.J. is getting beat up and thrown around in and out of school but he rolls with the punches, feeling nothing. Along comes the rail-thin golem, shirtless, showing a big homemade fuck-you tattoo on his back, with long greasy hair and a propensity for obscene talk and setting fire to things. In fact he is about T.J.'s rage at the world. T.J. and his father have moved in with sweet, borderline senile grandma (a selflessly frumpy Piper Laurie), and dad has turned into a bearded couch potato, his response to grief. Then they get Hesher, a blithe heavy metal provocateur with a grungy van.

Hesher spurts to life with Gordon-Levitt's outrageous bits: What? He said that? He did that? Hesher is hilariously raunchy in appearance and manner and there's a kick to the teenage boy in you that he gets away with this stuff. He moves into the house with T.J., dad, and grandma. Grandma calls him "dear." He feeds his dirty clothes into the washer and parades around the living room, in dirty jockey shorts, puffing on a long cigarette. He probably stinks but he's somehow sexy. He's sort of magic. He climbs up a telephone pole in his jockey shorts, agile as a monkey, fiddles with some wires and makes their TV take in more channels so he can watch porno. Though its tone sometime annoys, it's true as Kyle Smith of the New York Post (one of the film's few wholehearted in-print admirers, it seems) wrote that "Unlike many films that hope to be called black comedy," this one "does not skimp on either the black or the comedy." There is much darkness and sadness and some violence here, but also many pratfalls and household absurdities. Susser & Co. take a selfless delight in observing things as well as people falling or being dropped or thrown. Thus do the very young discover the nature of the physical world, and comedy is born out of purposeful accidents.

T.J. also befriends Nicole (Natalie Portman, a producer of the film, back in her sweet, flat old Garden State mode), a sad young loser working in a big box store, pretty behind her plann specs, and both T.J. and Hesher lust after her. T.J.'s silly focus is on getting his mother's car back. For him it represents her. It's at the wrecker's. Devin Brochu's performance moors the character of T.J., which otherwise is flailing helplessly, if bravely, beginning to swear like Hesher.

This movie is required viewing for Gordon-Levitt's bold, spot-on performance, another feather in his cap. Devin Brochu's is a bonus. On the other hand, at some point things turn from outrageous and funny to sad and sentimental and they lose their punch and promise and some scenes, though touching, wallow in feeling too much. Meanwhile though his volatility is a kick, Hesher's obscene monologues aren't really very amusing, and when he delivers one at a funeral designed to cheer up T.J. and his father and reconcile them to their loss it's just too self-consciously provocative -- and simply out of tune, and unbelievable.

Gordon-Levitt, however, does not falter. Just the sight of him has a tonic level of teasing offense, and he seems to achieve this without device except that his character is, in himself, a device. Up close, under the stringy hair, this gifted actor's big eyes look warmer and more kindly than they ever have. And that's the point too. Hesher is an angel. He is also another version of the Renoir Boudu Saved from Drowning premise, the seedy loner who comes along to save people, but he's just one whose obscene talk gets tired after a short while.

Curiously Susser's co-writer on this (working from a story by Brian Charles Frank) was David Michôd, of the searing Australian gangster film, Animal Kingdom. What did he contribute here? The sense of a family in crisis, of senseless moments of violence around every corner? The movie has countless moments of exploding and knocking over and destroying things, noses and toes menaced with garden shears, cars bashed, windows smashed. Yet in the end Hesher is too gentle and its ending is too sweet, and where Animal Kingdom delves deep into warring personalities and real-life dangers, it's all pushed here into metaphor and allegory, and turns into mush -- betraying the boldness and originality of the opening conception and the sincere desire of the filmmakers to depict the confrontation of grief.

Hesher debuted at Sundance January 22, 2011 and entered US theaters May 13; it is now available for home viewing.

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