Jesus’ Son

A sweetly ingratiating performance by Billy Crudup and a volatile one by Samantha Morton lend distinction to intermittently compelling and occasionally hilarious road movie. First American movie from New Zealander Alison Maclean reps an improvement upon her debut feature, "Crush," and evinces a talent for atmosphere.

A sweetly ingratiating performance by Billy Crudup and a volatile one by Samantha Morton lend distinction to “Jesus’ Son,” an intermittently compelling and occasionally hilarious road movie. First American movie from New Zealander Alison Maclean reps an improvement upon her debut feature, “Crush,” and evinces a talent for atmosphere and extracting strong values from individuals scenes. However, this fablelike odyssey of a young man’s journey to redemption through the morally relative drug culture of the early ’70s serves up a needlessly fractured narrative and overstays its welcome during the final couple of reels. Some further cutting could help maximize the film’s qualities, with OK specialized theatrical results resting upon prospect of some good reviews and word of mouth among the contempo equivalent of the “Drugstore Cowboy” constituency.

Adaptation of Denis Johnson’s acclaimed 1992 short stories collection explores a familiar subculture whose inhabitants are mostly hippie drifters, layabouts, small-time criminals and addicts. The most beguiling and least aggressive of them is a passive, maladroit young man (Crudup) who so reliably bungles whatever he sets out to do that he is nicknamed “Fuckhead,” or FH. When first glimpsed, in 1971, FH hitches a ride in a car he somehow knows will shortly be involved in a crash, but which he will survive.

Flashing back three years earlier, tale relates how the attractive but ineffectual FH falls under the spell of the mercurial, sexy heroin addict Michelle (Morton). The couple move from place to place, with the impressionable FH getting into drugs as well but never as deeply as his g.f. Fragmented storytelling has its sporadically amusing hiccups, with FH’s voiceover sometimes starting one thought, only to hesitate and say, “Wait a minute, I forgot …,” leading to other narrative strands.

Still, one can’t help but wonder if the whole film might have been more effectively told in straight linear fashion, without all the fanciness; one of its real plusses is Maclean’s way of jumping right into scenes without much setup, providing arresting immediacy, particularly in the abundant drug and sex interludes.

FH and Michelle’s sad relationship plays out with all the tragic inevitability of a union based almost exclusively on sensory stimulation. But while it’s fundamentally a downer, there are some good highs along the way. In a smart use of split-screen, a friend (Denis Leary) is seen dying from a dose of bad heroin while Michelle is able to rescue FH from a similar end. And in the pic’s gruesomely uproarious comic highlight, a man with a knife sticking into his eye walks into the hospital emergency room where FH is temporarily working and asks for treatment. The flaky staff’s attempt to deal with this, and the solution ultimately devised by FH’s chubby cohort Georgie (Jack Black), is skillfully milked to its last laugh.

Eighty minutes in, film comes full circle back to the opening car crash, in which FH saves a baby’s life, an ironic act in that Michelle has recently left him in the wake of having an abortion in Chicago. At the time of the wreck, FH is on his way to Mexico in an attempt to track down Michelle, and the traumatic end of this trail sees the scarred but somehow still innocent-souled young man go through rehab and finally settle into a low-key life as an attendant at an Arizona convalescent home.

A revivifying fling with a local oddball (Holly Hunter) notwithstanding, film’s final stretch is uneventfully anticlimactic, and possible pruning could be done in the interests of quickening the point of FH’s mild enlightenment and redemption. Religious motifs suggested by the title are peppered gingerly throughout, their meaning never made blatantly explicit. But the suggestion emerges that FH’s impulse to behave decently and do good in the world finally can find an outlet despite his lack of moral definition and the transgressions in which he has participated.

In the leading role, Crudup creates an extraordinary portrait of utter guilelessnes, of a cork bobbing upon the waters of life with no intended destination. Per his acquired name, the character is meant to be a relative dimwit, but not only is there no playing down to him, there is no sense of contrivance or studied performance at all; it’s a lovely, gracefully naturalistic turn. In the dramatically dynamic part, Morton impresses once again as a girl who knows herself, knows what she wants and gets it, but without any long-range thought given to it. It’s easy to see why a sponge like FH would love her and join her downward spiral rather than change her, and Morton makes Michelle a memorable casualty of the times. Supporting cast is very good, with Black standing out as the goofy lost soul who becomes FH’s buddy in the ER.

Adam Kimmel’s widescreen lensing of mostly Midwestern locations is very good. The gritty, casual early 1970s era is evoked with no undue fuss, and Joe Henry’s original score and music supervisor Randall Poster’s many song selections provide major boosts.

Jesus’ Son

  • Production: A Lions Gate (in North America) release of a Lions Gate and Alliance Atlantis presentation of an Evenstar Films production. Produced by Lydia Dean Pilcher, Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia. Executive producer, Steve Tuttleman. Co-producer, Margot Bridger. (International sales: Alliance Atlantis, Santa Monica, Calif.) Directed by Alison Maclean. Screenplay, Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia, Oren Moverman, based on the book of short stories by Denis Johnson.
  • Crew: Camera (Technicolor, widescreen), Adam Kimmel; editors, Geraldine Peroni, Stuart Levy; music, Joe Henry; music supervisor, Randall Poster; production designer, David Doernberg; art director, Andrea Stanley; set decorator, Geri Rudin; sound (Dolby), John Gooch; supervising sound editor, Warren Shaw; assistant director, Robert Warren; casting, Laura Rosenthal, Ali Farrell. Reviewed at Telluride Film Festival, Sept. 5, 1999. (Also in Venice (competing), Toronto (Contemporary World Cinema) film festivals.) Running time: 109 min.
  • With: FH - Billy Crudup Michelle - Samantha Morton Wayne - Denis Leary Georgie - Jack Black John Smith - Will Patton Dr. Shanis - Greg Germann Mira - Holly Hunter Bill - Dennis Hopper
  • Music By: