The following is a reprint of our review that ran during the 2010 SXSW Film Festival.
In the immortal words of C&C Music Factory, “Hesher,” a dark comedy/drama concoction from co-writer/director Spencer Susser, is very much a thing that makes you go “hmmmm.” This might not be a bad thing (to tell you the truth we’re still parsing through our thoughts on the film), but it certainly exists – it’s the kind of movie you’re thinking about days after you’ve seen it, whether you want to or not.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as the titular character, a kind of shamanistic wanderer (or “tramp”) whose life intersects with a very troubled family. Hesher loves heavy metal, cigarettes, and fucking shit up. That’s about all we know about him. And yet we’re supposed to invest a kind of mythical importance in his mere presence (Gordon-Levitt sports scummy, shoulder-length hair and crudely illustrated tattoos), even though he lends little to the movie, in a narrative or tonal sense, beyond a “fuck you” attitude.
The movie begins with an elliptical scene, as we follow a smashed-up car being towed away to an impound lot and the young boy (Devin Brochu) racing after the car. We understand that there’s been some kind of severe, personal trauma involved in the car, but we aren’t sure what, exactly, has happened. More things become clear when the young boy (whose name is TJ) returns home – his father (Rainn Wilson, more dramatic than funny) is popping pills and laid up on the couch, while his grandmother (Piper Laurie) tries to hold the family together, even though she’s not all there in the head.
Natalie Portman, for reasons that still aren’t clear to this reviewer, co-stars as a young, aimless supermarket clerk who befriends TJ after intervening in a fight between the boy and a schoolyard bully. (Portman also produced the film, go figure.) She ends up becoming the twisted love interest to not only TJ but also Hesher.
Hesher, as a character, seems to have been conceived with a keen eye towards crafting a screen persona that would be really cool. And as Hesher, Jospeh Gordon-Levitt does imbue the character with some amount of charismatic swagger, but otherwise, he’s just a crude, crass, unwashed, and unsympathetic jerk who inserts himself into this deeply troubled family’s life and doesn’t have the good sense (or self-consciousness) to dislodge himself. He curses, he farts, he sets things on fire (like the bully’s car and, bafflingly, a diving board), he steals cable and, in the end, he tries for dimensionality and depth, but all that ever comes across is a hard rock cipher.
This might be because the movie feels so cloyingly indie-movie-ish in the most annoying way possible – it’s composed of a largely autumnal color scheme, shot in jittery hand-held, and takes its main stylistic cues (when concerning production design and set dressing) from the 1970s. To boil this down: it’s the kind of movie where characters wear large, oversized old timey glasses. That kind of movie.
Which isn’t to say that the movie is totally hopeless; there’s a scope to the ambition of the film that is genuinely admirable, if not exactly successful. There seems to have been an attempt by the filmmakers (the film was co-written by David Michod, who was responsible for last year’s sprawling Melbourne crime drama “Animal Kingdom“) to try and push exactly how unlikeable and miserable a character they could create (and then later ask for an audience to invest in). It’s kind of a cool dare, but it never really coheres to create anything memorable or worthwhile.
Maybe if the characters had drive beyond “doing whatever;” maybe if the plot had been equipped with some kind of dramatic engine; maybe if the movie was so self-aware, so styled to be talked about. But unfortunately it is all of those things; which equals a movie that’s just not-very-good.
More than anything, it’s just a loose collection of clichés (the dead mother! the aimless, beautiful young girl!) and plot contrivances (the bully!) that can’t hang together or overcome the movie’s general feeling of oddly displaced aimlessless.
In the end, “Hesher” is the type of movie that rubs you the wrong way and puzzles you in certain ways where you can’t tell if the filmmakers are being emotionally engaging or stimulating… or just plain annoying. And about the time you’ve made up your mind about the movie, it will shift again, either tonally or in the course of the narrative, which only gives you another reason to ask yourself — WTF? Or maybe better yet: who cares? [C+]