Jesus’ Son



USA 1999
dir. Alison MacLean
scr. Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia, Oren Moverman (based on a book of short stories by Denis Johnson)
cin. Adam Kimmel
stars Billy Crudup, Samantha Morton
109 minutes

If he isn’t careful, Billy Crudup may well fall foul of Michael Par syndrome, a terminal condition which affects the careers of those actors who are too good looking to be movie stars. That may sound paradoxical – surely the whole point of movie stars is that they have ‘movie star looks’ – but the camera doesn’t like actors, or actresses, who take it a step too far. Par was tipped for megastardom after his title role in the 1984 cult classic Eddie and the Cruisers, but it never quite happened, possibly because of his tricky name, but mainly, I suspect, because his too-perfect face and too-perfect body turned off more people than they turned on.

The same fate could easily have befallen Par’s near-contemporary Matt Dillon – a more talented, original, charismatic and original actor than, say, Tom Cruise, or John Cusack – but he managed to save himself by diverting from mainstream into indie with Drugstore Cowboy and is still with us, still making interesting career choices. Which brings us neatly back to Billy Crudup, as Jesus’ Son takes Drugstore Cowboy as its template – both are moodily comic evocations of early 70s drug culture, with eclectic soundtracks and occasional dips into trippy surrealism. And just as Dillon is a better actor than Crudup, so Cowboy is a better movie than Jesus, though ultimately not by that massive a margin.

If Crudup is too good looking to be a sure-fire proper movie star, he certainly doesn’t look much like a junkie – it’s absurd that his striking features and build aren’t commented on by the other characters. Although his flirtation with heroin in the movie is brief (and very nearly fatal) it’s distracting that his character never does any of the physical work, strenuous exercise or sporting activity which might explain his noticeably muscular, trim frame – see also Matt Damon in The Talented Mr Ripley. The incongruity is especially noticeable during the one graphic shooting-up scene, when Crudup searches for a vein – for real junkies, this involves strapping up their arm and tapping at their skin. But before he’s even started this procedure, the veins on his muscles are unmissably thick, pumped-up cords. Crudup got in Olympic shape for his role as athlete Steve Prefontaine in 1998’s Without Limits, but clearly either couldn’t or wouldn’t adapt to the totally different requirement suitable to his character in Jesus’ Son.

While the movies often involve leaps of faith and suspensions of disbelief, the problem of Crudup’s biceps point up a more fundamental failing in Jesus’ Son. The film makes no bones about the fact that it’s based on a volume of short stories – in fact, MacLean makes a virtue of the material’s erratic, episodic nature, with Crudup’s unnamed central character (he’s occasionally nicknamed ‘Fuck Head’, but, in spite of what the credits, press notes are reviews suggest, never ‘FH’) jumping from story to story as he looks back over the last couple of years of his life. These trace Crudup’s gradual development from borderline idiot-savant to relatively confident, mature narrator, as he moves from dead-end to dead-end before finally reaching a kind of grace by working in a care home for the disabled and addicted.

The only other recurring character in the film is Crudup’s on-off girlfriend Michelle, a more seriously committed junkie and a peach of a role for British actress Samantha Morton, although she ends up, unsatisfactorily, as more of cipher, a plot contrivance, than a character. Incidentally, Morton provides further evidence for my ‘movie star looks’ theory. She’s far from catwalk pretty, but the camera loves her unorthodox, big-eyed face, and she’s such a vibrant, uninhibited performer that her characters’ emotions seem to be transmitted straight to the audience, undimmed by passing through the apparatus of film recording and projection. But this is to digress from the point I was making two paragraphs back about the film’s fundamental failing. With the exception of Crudup and Morton, the rest of Jesus’s Son‘s characters appear in only one episode each – Denis Leary, Will Patton, Jack Black, Dennis Hopper, finally Holly Hunter – with uncomfortable results.

Drugstore Cowboy was hardly populated by unknowns, but the actors weren’t that familiar. Jesus’ Son, however, suffers from cameo-itis, and it disrupts the audience’s connection with the flow of the movie. And it’s not even as if these big names deliver big performances. Leary, Patton, Black (who hams it up in a virtually identical role to his work in High Fidelity) and Hopper bring an air of phoniness to the project – it’s unsettling to see well-heeled, middle-class, sophisticated actors trying to play rattily down-at-heel working class stiffs. Leary is the worst offender, with his smirkingly bad-70s wardrobe and moustache standing in for an actual performance.

In fact, all the male actors, from Crudup on down, give the impression of needing stronger directorial handling: Hopper’s one scene, an extended audition-piece type two-hander, presumably improvised, in which he receives a shave from Crudup, is especially irritating, with an overwhelming air of self-indulgent self-satisfaction. It’s also off-putting that Hopper’s character has ‘bullet holes’ on either cheek, supposedly the scars of when he was shot in the mouth by his wife – except that, if these really were exit and entry wounds, Hopper’s character would have neither teeth, tongue or roof of mouth, making speech – let alone the verbosity he displays here – an impossibility. Again, the film suffers in comparison with Drugstore Cowboy, as Hopper occupies roughly the same role, at roughly the same point in the movie, as William Burroughs in Gus Van Sant’s picture, but while Burroughs was a startling unfamiliar – even alien – screen presence which propelled the movie to new heights of believability and humour, Hopper has played this kind of role in this kind of picture way too often in the past.

The one ‘star cameo’ which actually works in Jesus’ Son is Holly Hunter’s, and to be honest it’s so good it makes up for the redundancy of all the rest. As a damaged but optimistic client of the care home who forges a friendship with Crudup, Hunter shows up all the other performers in the film – except Morton – for the opportunistic tourists they are. She’s hardly in the film at all, but she sketches in her character with such bold, sharp, indelible strokes, and, appearing so late in proceedings, may well leave many cinemagoers with a higher view of Jesus’ Son than it actually deserves: this is a performance bursting with a bafflingly rare quality in cinema these days, humanity, and it may well be the best thing about the film.

Re-reading my criticisms of the movie, I feel as though I’m being very tough on Jesus’ Son. I have my doubts about the intentions of MacLean and her scriptwriters, but I did end up rather enjoying the experience of watching the film, as long as I didn’t subject it to too much scrutiny. The gritty cinematography and nimble editing hit the mark, combining nicely with the well-chosen soundtrack, and MacLean’s direction is evocative without ever once tipping into kitsch or parody, especially when she crafts striking compositions based around Crudup. She achieves a persuasively beguiling looseness – sounds and images synchronise into seductive rhythms, and there are a few images of genuine epiphany. It would take a hard heart not to be moved by a moment late on when Crudup watches a woman through a window then miraculously passes his hand through to place it comfortingly on the back of her head.

The ‘window’ scene is the most effective of a whole stack of religious-themed imagery and ideas which permeate Jesus’ Son from the title (taken from a Velvet Underground track, apparently) on down. Some of these work – I liked one throwaway shot of Crudup through a diner window, the motif appearing like a crown of thorns over his head – and some don’t, such as the crass ‘sacred heart’ that emerges from a lowlife’s tattoo, not to mention the way Christmas is used to provide cheap irony during an abortion sequence. Though part of me is offended by the way the one good-looking character in a narrative turns out to be the central one, the one who matters, I have to concede one benefit of casting Crudup in the lead role is his resemblance – specifically the cheekbones and eyes – to Jim Caviezel, whose Private Witt in The Thin Red Line was also composed equally of saint and fool, the one never contradicting or compromising the other.

If Jesus’ Son ultimately falls a long way short of The Thin Red Line and Drugstore Cowboy – not to mention La Vie de Jesus, The Dreamlife of Angels and Boys Don’t Cry, all of which attempt to plough similar ground – that doesn’t mean it isn’t a stimulating, funny, moving, intriguing piece of work. As with the central character, there’s no shortage of flaws – but you end up overlooking them, giving the benefit of the doubt, keying in, maybe even against your better judgement, to those casually intoxicating rhythms.