TELLURIDE '99 REVIEW: Maclean's "Jesus' Son," a Story of Levity and Grace
by Margaret A. McGurk
Director Alison Maclean has won a lot of influential friends in the past several years, with her first feature “Crush” and her contributions to the TV series “The Seven Deadly Sins” (for ABC), “Homicide: Life on the Streets“(NBC), “Subway Stories” and “Sex and the City” (both HBO). In addition, she has development deals with Zeotrope, Miramax and Good Machine.
Now, she has a chance to win a broader audience with “Jesus’ Son,” adapted
from Denis Johnson’s book of short stories about an aimless druggie known
only as “Fuckhead,” or FH, (Billy Crudup).
Filmmakers too often forget that addiction itself is boring; bad behavior
is bad behavior, even when the perp is, say, a sexy rock star. Maclean sheds
the usual stereotypes of glamor and degradation to tell a story of
surprising levity and grace. She wisely chooses to tune into the human voice
at the heart of the tale, and to zero in on the rich veins of dark and goofy
humor in Johnson’s stories.
It took a trio of screenwriters — Eizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia and
Oren Moverman — to tranlate Johnson’s stories into a movie script. They
chose, appropriately enough, a looping, elliptical style that looks the way
the narrator talks. The story jumps back and forth in time, repeats itself
and shifts without warning from direct narrative to hallucinations.
One particularly striking sequence, for instance, takes place while FH and
a companion are stealing copper wire from the other man’s former home to
earn money for drugs. FH looks out a window and sees a naked woman soaring
through the air on what looks like a parachute harness. When the companion
matter of factly says, “That was my wife,” FH takes it as a shared dream, in
a story peppered with dreams, memories and visions. Maclean and company resist the temptation to overexplain those moments. Usually, that’s the right choice, though it leaves a blanks in the story line, some of them annoying. More often, gaps are artfully concealed by Crudup’s engaging voice-over, much of it lifted almost verbatim from
Maclean makes economical use of celebrity cameos to flesh out events that a
low-budget movie could never afford to stage. For instance, the hero’s entire stint in a drug rehab center is represented by a single scene when FH shaves a fellow patient, played by Dennis Hopper.
The director elicits strong work from the entire cast — Jack Black is
particularly memorable as a pill-popping emergency room orderly. Samantha
Morton invests feral energy in an underwritten role as the girl who shares
her heart and her heroin habit with FH. Ultimately the movie belongs to Billy Crudup, who is on screen virtually every moment. He creates a naive young searcher full of charm and generosity, without ever forgetting that he is also playing an dolt with a needle in his arm.
Production designer David Doernberg (“Desert Blue,” “Gummo”) deserves a nod for good work on a stringent budget. He squeezes a convincing coast-to-coast look out of a handful of locations.
[Margaret A. McGurk is film critic at The Cincinnati Enquirer. She has also
written for The Independent Film and Video Monthly.]