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Grade: BJesus' Son (1999)

Director: Alison Maclean

Stars: Billy Crudup, Robert Michael Kelly, Samantha Morton, Michael Shannon

Release Company: Lionsgate

MPAA Rating: R

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The story line for Jesus' Son doesn’t sound promising, as it essentially rambles through a junkie's life--the title is taken from a lyric in Lou Reed's song called “Heroin.” Though traveling familiar terrain--Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Boyle’s Trainspotting, or Van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy--Alison MacLean’s film creatively takes some different turns that enjoyably transport us to new ground.

Jesus' Son could never work without a sympathetic lead character, and MacLean has found the perfect protagonist junkie in the amazingly charismatic Billy Crudup (Sleepers and Waking the Dead), who plays FH, a name that you've heard a few times from raging freeway drivers. He obtains the nickname by having a propensity to screw things up.

FH takes us on a guided tour of his Life, flashback style beginning with a hitch-hiking scene in pouring rain that we'll see more than once. Crudup's charming demeanor and narration let us know that we're not in Kansas anymore and tripping somewhere else. FH poetically tells us that he knows every raindrop's name, and has a premonition about the Oldsmobile that it would “. . . have an accident in the storm.” Even so FH tells us that he doesn't care and remarks about the pair of lungs on a surviving baby. Then he interrupts by saying, “But I get ahead of myself. . .”

Suddenly we are sent back three years to a farmhouse in early 1970's Iowa to see how he met the great love of his life, Michelle, wonderfully played by Samantha Morten (Sweet and Lowdown). She enters with a bang, dancing at a seductive frenzy that soon has FH meeting up with her in the barn. They are interrupted by her boyfriend McInnes (John Ventimiglia); we then flash forward two years to the place where Michelle's boyfriend has died from an overdose. Here FH touches on the philosophical in attempting to comfort Michelle, saying “living and dying are two things, and division is why we feel so lost.” While this doesn't gain FH a first kiss, it does lead to beginning a relationship. Other philosophical musings will be worked into other scenes.

Most movies that deal with junkies to jump around and border on the surreal, and Jesus' Son certainly does that. The plot is like a stream of consciousness trip through FH's mind, mostly obsessing on his relationship with Michelle. Some parts seem so mundane, like the first time that Michelle shoots heroin and asks FH if he's ever seen anyone do that. He hasn't, and she routinely goes about her business.

On the other hand, we also witness scenes that are remarkably bizarre, surreal, and humorous. For instance, when we meet another junkie named Dundun, he has just shot his friend but is so spaced out that he just looks at the blood and remarks that he didn't mean to do it and hasn't thought about getting him to the hospital. All he can do is remark, “What a lousy birthday!” Other episodes visually show us the stoned perspective, like a scene with a naked angel floating to earth and another where a tattoo begins to glow. The pacing of the film itself and its episodic nature parallels a drug experience, and this is one of the film's strengths.

Had the director attempted to make a strict plot driven movie, it would have felt contrived. This is a fascinating story about FH and his friends, and a person's life shouldn't have a tidy and neat beginning, middle, and end. After all, we mostly follow the meanderings of FH and his junkie friends, so a loose structure should be expected. We do have a beginning with bummed out and aimless FH looking for a ride, and we have an ending where he has achieved some measure of redemption and has even literally learned to touch some people. The middle portions seem much like episodes from FH's memory that could have been moved around without affecting the film too badly.

It's these sections that give the movie its best moments, however. There are cameos that are tremendously effective—Holly Hunter, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Black to name the most notable. It may be difficult to imagine Billy Crudup holding his own with Hopper while shaving him, yet he does. On the other hand, lead actors may not be so happy to be paired with Jack Black, fresh from his triumphant work as the hyper store assistant in High Fidelity. The scenes with Black in them are the most memorable by far, as Black plays a hospital orderly named Georgie, who does a great many unprescribed drugs himself.

Unlike FH, who seems to attract doom, Georgie breathes life into the world and lightens the film in the process. He saves little baby bunnies at one point, and later has the funniest line of the movie with a patient who has entered the Emergency room with a stabbing headache (so to speak). I won't repeat the line here because it requires the visual experience that surrounds it.

Jesus' Son can “save” your movie life if you get discouraged about the bloated and predictable summer offerings. This is dark comedy and some creative filmed slices of lives that most of us wouldn't encounter otherwise. If you are especially moved by movie plots, don't expect to be uplifted and find all the problems resolved at the end of the two hours. This is strictly a film that redeems movie geeks.

 


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