Jesus' Son

(Alison Maclean, 1999)

It has been a long time between cinematic ‘drinks’ for Alison Maclean. The Canadian-born, ex-New Zealand and now New York-based director first made her presence felt with her internationally acclaimed, award-winning short Kitchen Sink (1989). This Gothic tale of subversive female desire was followed by her equally intriguing first feature, Crush (1992). In the intervening years, Maclean received offers of work from major US studios and had a number of projects in development-none of which, regrettably, came to fruition. Her break finally came in the form of television work, where directorial stints on, amongst other series, Homicide and Sex and the City consolidated her US profile and helped bring her to the attention of the producers of Jesus’ Son.

Maclean’s long-awaited second feature is based on American novelist Denis Johnson’s collection of short stories of the same title. Three writers spent several years reworking the collected stories into a continuous though resolutely episodic narrative, linked by the voice-over of the central character, Fuckhead (Billy Crudup). Jesus’ Son details five years in the life of this likeable but feckless habitué of mid-Western, small town drug sub-culture, circa 1970.

In the course of Fuckhead’s aimless wanderings he meets a series of characters whose own travails are played out against the backdrop of his befuddled, often hallucinogenic visions. The film benefits from a series of inspired cameos in fleshing out these subsidiary characters, all of whom contribute to the film’s resolutely grim depiction of adult relationships. Jack Black, currently starring in a similarly scene-stealing role in High Fidelity (Stephen Frears, 2000) here takes flight as a wide-eyed, pill-popping hospital employee. In an hilarious scene that features Johnson himself (as the stabbing victim of marital violence!), Black and Crudup play out a scene of high farce as two doped-up irredeemably incompetent orderlies-ER it ain’t. Elsewhere, Dennis Leary is surprisingly moving as an embittered, alcoholic casualty of marriage. Dennis Hopper is thankfully restrained in a small role as a psychiatric inmate while Holly Hunter, compelling as always, appears as a perennially bereaved romantic-Fuckhead’s fellow traveller in personal pain.

Central to Fuckhead’s personal journey is the character of Michelle (Samantha Morton). Maclean addressed the lack of a forceful female presence in Johnson’s stories by combining his fleeting references to women to create a pivotal character who shapes the narrative in her own inimitable way. Michelle’s recklessness and vulnerability finds a perfect but fatal counterpart in Fuckhead. Morton, so memorable in Under the Skin (Carine Adler, 1998), seems to inhabit these damaged young female characters with a preternatural intensity. Her performance in Jesus’ Son is so compulsively watchable that the film seems to be drained of a certain tension once she disappears from the screen.

Johnson’s vision has been described as ‘trailerpark realism with hallucinatory underpinnings’ (1). Maclean translates that singular sensibility to the screen while simultaneously stamping the film with her own distinctive style. The droll tone and febrile imagery of Johnson’s prose shines through in Fuckhead’s wry, conversational voice-over and whimsical, often lurid ‘cloud 9’ visions (2). Maclean makes Fuckhead a picaresque figure for the doped-up, dropped-out ’70s, a character who retains audience sympathies despite a series of disturbing and destructive scenarios.

Maclean’s expressive use of landscape and interiors in Crush is brought to bear even more effectively on the bleak, small town wastelands of Jesus’ Son. She gives the film a washed out, trippy feel. Urban rather than rural landscapes seem devoid of human life-interiors are only ever conditionally inhabited, houses more transitory than hotel rooms, roads rarely traversed and even then with catastrophic results. Maclean’s astute use of colour, wardrobe and music renders this topographically and culturally specific milieu in an understated but indelible way (3).

Jesus’ Son has been reviewed in the context of a sub-genre of drug-inflected films that include Drug Store Cowboy (Gus Van Sant, 1989) and Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996) but the film suggests stronger links with Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead (1999). Hardly an exemplar of the ‘junkie journey’ narrative, Scorsese’s film nevertheless features a beleaguered male protagonist, whose conflicted moral universe is complicated by narcotic dependence. Frank (Nicholas Cage), an insomniac ambulance driver, trawls the New York streets cataloguing every conceivable form of human suffering. His increasingly feverish, drug-enhanced insomnia is exacerbated by the haunting presence of Rosa, a young junkie whose life he was unable to save.

Frank’s frenetic moral quest accompanied by the ‘angelic’ Rosa has much in common with Fuckhead’s equally intense narrative of personal redemption, inspired by the on-screen and off-screen presence of his own guardian angel, Michelle. Both films employ a conspiratorial, first person voice-over together with a potent mix of surreal realism and exceedingly black humour to invest the experiences of their anti-heroes with genuine pathos. While Jesus’ Son is overlong- the final section dealing with Fuckhead’s redemption is disappointingly prosaic-the film is, for the most part an engaging, idiosyncratic and long overdue contribution from an increasingly assured director.

Endnotes

  1. Jonathon Romney, The Guardian, 7.7.00
  2. Denis Johnson uses this term to describe Fuckhead’s hallucinogenic visions, see Production Notes, Director’s Statement, Jesus’ Son.
  3. Denis Johnson was involved in the selection of music for the soundtrack and is credited as music consultant.

About The Author

Rose Capp is Vice-President of the Film Critics Circle of Australia and a freelance writer on film.