Neither the protagonist of Jesus' Son nor his movie is as motivated as the larcenous users of Drugstore Cowboy or Trainspotting. Director Alison Maclean instead takes an approach that's a more quietly bittersweet portrait of drug life. The funny quirks and hallucinatory detours keep your interest, but Jesus' Son mostly wants to show a fall from grace and the restoration to it.
Our antihero is known to us only as F.H., for "Fuckhead" (making the casting of an actor named "Crudup" in the role singularly appropriate). From his earliest scenes meekly hitchhiking in the cold or drifting in the company of fellow losers, we quickly realize that being a junkie is probably F.H.'s greatest accomplishment -- he even takes punches from angry waitresses.
He's drawn to a gamine-like fellow addict Michelle (Samantha Morton), whom he first sees dancing at a party, a flare of life in a sea of slack faces. Their tender moments in seedy motels are followed by top-of-their-lungs arguments that usually leave F.H. bereft and beaten. Crudup's curious, laid-back charm indicates that F.H.'s love for Michelle is sincere, but may not match his habits for narcotics and failure.
Jesus' Son is based on Denis Johnson's book of interconnected, semi-autobiographical short stories, and the screenwriters (Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia and Oren Moverman) sustain an episodic structure that's rare for a feature film. In one segment, F.H. goes on a job with barfly buddy Wayne (Denis Leary), who teaches him how to harvest copper wire from a deserted house. When they witness a naked woman inexplicably sky-diving, Wayne says, "That was my wife," and F.H., like the audience, feels like he's in someone else's story (maybe one by Raymond Carver in a dreamy mood).
The most overtly comic segment has F.H. working in a hospital, buddying up with pill-popping orderly Georgie (Jack Black). When the strung-out duo tries to assist a garishly wounded patient, it's like your worst nightmare about the health care system. As in High Fidelity, Black's pudgy, swaying frame and live-wire intensity make him a fiendish scene-stealer.
The film's title comes from the lyric, "I feel just like Jesus' son" from the Velvet Underground's "Heroin," and religious images recur. An early shot finds F.H. looking through a window with a holly design stenciled over his head, suggesting a crown of thorns. Overdose scenes can be read as resurrections, while a sinister hustler reveals a sacred heart tattoo that glows like a star.
When F.H. tries to put his life back on track in the film's final act, he's working at a home for the aged and deformed, peeping on a pious Mennonite couple and wooing a wounded alcoholic (Holly Hunter) whose bad luck rivals his own. Redemption is never as sexy or compelling as dissolution, and the pace slackens, perhaps weighed down by the heaviness of the symbolism.
The ensemble is fittingly low-key, with Leary offering a more subtle, precise performance than the ex-comic usually provides. Morton proves as nakedly expressive as in her mute, Oscar-nominated turn in Sweet and Lowdown, with moving line-readings as well. Dennis Hopper even turns up as a weary, wounded junkie trying to recover, in a scene comparable to William S. Burroughs' stunt-casting cameo in Drugstore Cowboy.
Maclean gives Jesus' Son some eye-catching effects, like a split-screen of Leary and Crudup simultaneously shooting up in separate locations and a bad trip that includes flying Band-Aids and talking cotton-balls. But despite its occasionally self-conscious visuals and darkly comic gags, the film ultimately feels life-sized and realistic, hopeful without holding out easy answers. Other portraits of addiction can be flamboyantly stylish or unstintingly brutal, but Jesus' Son walks a milder, middle ground that can be just as affecting, as long as it avoids preaching to the converted.