Published June 1, 2000
Jesus’ Son [sic] adapted from a stories by Denis Johnson and directed by Alison Maclean represents a revivification of a kind of pretentiousness that had its heyday in the 1960s and was associated with that era’s conceit that hippies, drug-users and drop-outs of all descriptions were a higher order of spiritual being—more like Jesus himself, in fact—than ordinary people who had jobs and families. Being a junkie and a thief and having casual sex may not always be a recipe for a happy or a comfortable life, but it sure does afford you (so we were asked to believe) a great many opportunities for spiritual enlightenment. And this is precisely the effect these things have on this film’s hero, known only as F***head (Billy Crudup). His spiritual progress is charted for us by his occasionally pausing in the midst of his various self-indulgences to deliver himself of a self-consciously Deep Thought.
These thoughts are delivered by means of portentous voiceover pronouncements, or else in conversation with his junkie girlfriend, Michelle (Samantha Morton), to whom in chatting her up he speculates, for example, that “maybe living and dying are the same thing, and the fact we’ve turned them into two different things is why we feel so lost.” Hm. Maybe so. At any rate, he soon has her pants off. When one of his junkie friends begins to behave erratically or violently, he tells us that he, the friend, is not really to blame. “If I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, you might end up someone like that,” says F***head. This, too, is possible, I suppose, though I’d have thought the effect would be something even worse.
But once again, the real idea behind these kinds of comments seems to be to associate the hero with vaguely compassionate and spiritual-sounding words, some of them evocative of wonder at the “miraculous world”—or what the Tao calls “the 10,000 things”—around him. This kind of things is undertaken rather in the fashion of the now-famous plastic shopping bag in American Beauty—so that we will be left in no doubt that the hero is a sensitive plant, like the poet Shelley, whose perceptions and sensibilities are likely to soar far above our own. Thus impressed with his soul, we are more likely, too, to overlook in him what is actually the salient feature of most junkies, namely their unattractiveness.
Another way to do this is to make the hero’s associates and friends even more unattractive than he is. The character of Miss Morton, who is a fine actress and a lovely woman, is so uninteresting that even she looks bad beside F***head. Others who take their turn making him look good include Denis Leary, Jack Black, Will Patton and Dennis Hopper—what you might call the honor roll of Hollywood’s creepy-looking guys. In addition, there is a considerable collection of no-name creeps, including one who comes into the emergency room of a hospital where F***head is briefly employed with a knife in his eye. He has been stabbed by his wife—just as, we learn later, Dennis Hopper’s character has been shot by both his wives. “Once by each wife,” he says. “A total of three bullets.”
“And you’re still alive?” asks F***head—“I mean, in a deeper sense.”
Of course, being alive in a deeper sense is what the film is about. Nor is that at all a contemptible subject. But it offers us only cheap enlightenment and cut-rate spirituality. Towards the end it takes on a more promising cast as F***head—introduced to us as one of life’s pathetic victims—finds himself employed in a rehab center or asylum for people far more seriously afflicted than he has ever been. This is victim city, a place (says the voiceover) that “made God look like a senseless maniac.” But, inspired more by the gentle spirit of hippiedom than by anger, the film is naturally working up to the conclusion that God is not a senseless maniac. Instead, F***head finds himself happier than he has ever been here. “All these weirdos and me, getting better every day, right in the middle of them,” he says.
It seems most unlikely that the weirdos are getting better every day. Or, indeed, that he himself is becoming remarkably less weird. But I rather liked the film’s final demonstration of his weirdness, as he starts spying through the window of a devout Mennonite couple. At first this seems purely a sexual and voyeuristic interest, as the woman is singing hymns in the shower. But soon the couple come to represent for him the kind of wholesomeness and love and purpose that all his life he has been peering in at from somewhere outside. Now at last he is coming to love these things, and I was genuinely moved by the ending, with the singing of “In the sweet by-and by.” Good for F***head, that his spiritual quest at last comes to rest with “…we’ll understand it all by and by…” But the film never really makes us believe that we had to sit through all that self-indulgence and self-intoxication in order to get there.