What do you get when you take a nice quiet film about people trying to cope with sudden trauma and the tragedy of their daily lives, and throw in a psychotic butt-rocker with a penchant for blowing shit up? The result is Spencer Susser’s new indie flick “Hesher”. Okay, it’s not super new, it premiered at Sundance in 2010, but it’s finally found a release, and is totally worth the wait.
The eponymous Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a metal worshipping madman, and is on my current shortlist of favorite movie characters in the history of ever. When you first meet him he punches a young boy in the sternum, tosses a stick of dynamite at a rent-a-cop, and then makes his escape, peeling out in a windowless black van. He reminds me of guys in my hometown in the 80s, the kind of dude who has a giant middle finger tattoo on his back and another of a stick figure committing suicide on his chest. He doesn’t give a fuck, and only exists to rage and get radical, ready to huff glue and fight tooth and nail anyone who dares oppose him.
T.J. Forney (Devin Brochu) has the mixed fortune of showing up on Hesher’s radar. T.J. recently lost his mother in a car crash, and is having trouble coping, lashing out at home and school. To make matters worse, a local bully picks on him relentlessly, and his father, Paul (Rainn Wilson), is so wracked with grief and doped up on prescription meds that he can barely form coherent sentences, let alone deal with his tormented adolescent son. Aside from his space cadet grandmother (Piper Laurie), the only person who is ever nice to T.J. is Nicole (Natalie Portman), a mousey cliché of a grocery store clerk who has trouble coming to terms with her own disappointing existence.
When T.J. first encounters Hesher, you’re not entirely sure that he’s real. You think he might be a dark manifestation of T.J.’s fractured ego, a defense mechanism, a hidden part of his personality that T.J. taps into in order to act out his most base desires and survive his desolate life. This could easily be a Tyler Durden kind of scenario, and there is even a scene in a scene in a support group that echoes “Fight Club”. Hesher is larger than life and invites himself to live at T.J.’s grandmother’s, where no one really seems to mind, or notice. Within minutes of crashing there Hesher scales a telephone pole in his tighty whities to steal them cable, and that’s enough of a peace offering to counter any hesitation from Paul or Grandma. Everyone is so accepting of Hesher’s presence that you suspect they’re humoring T.J., pretending to see his new imaginary friend.
Hesher serves multiple functions in T.J.’s life. He is by turns oppressor and protector, standing idly by while a bully force-feeds T.J. a urinal cake, but later helping T.J. exact a much more ferocious revenge. Hesher has moments of sage wisdom, and is full of useful advice, like, ‘”Human beings have been poking vagina for a hundred years, probably longer”. His profanity-filled metaphorical tangents, which often involve partying and multiple naked women, hit the emotional mark, like one particularly drunken tirade about losing a testicle, but being able to appreciate the fact that he still has a fully functional dick. Despite his gruff exterior, Hesher really has a glass-half-full outlook, and he’s going to teach T.J. and Paul how to live. It helps to think of him as a sort of savant, butt-rock therapist; there is tough love when the situation calls for it, but also deep insight that border on tenderness.
Susser and co-writer David Michod achieve a balance between the dramatic and the humorous. Though “Hesher” is a heavy story that could have easily bogged down in depression and gloom, they never let the weight kill the pace and bury you beneath the overwhelming hopelessness. Just when the seriousness is about to become too much to bear, Hesher pops up, lounging on a lawn chair, shelling peanuts with a shit-eating grin on his face, and things aren’t so bad anymore. He saves the movie just like he saves T.J.
“Hesher” isn’t perfect. There are a few moments that are a little bit too on the nose, like a heavy rainstorm that breaks at the most dramatic, emotionally dense moment in the film. But it works as a solemn story about dealing with loss, tragedy, and disappointment, primarily because Gordon-Levitt’s character bridges the gap between laughter and tears. You can sit back and hoot and holler at his raucous antics, laughing at his bawdy stories, but still being affected by the plight of the characters. As a result, and for a variety of reasons, “Hesher” is one of the best movies I’ve seen so far this year.