With his shock of grease-ball hair and ostentatiously tattooed body the always malleable actor, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, deserves some serious props for creating a vivid character with a brutal resonance. Free from the stagnancy and stoicism that defined his Arthur in Chris Nolan’s monolithic Inception, Gordon-Levitt’s title role in Hesher allows the actor to go back to doing what he does best: memorably inhabiting characters perpetually existing on the outer-fringes of their respective societies. However, the most egregious fault of the film from director and writer Spencer Susser is that the script has no real idea on what to do with Levitt’s volatile characterization.
Although Gordon-Levitt plays the titular character and his presence dominates the action of the film, we, the audience, gain our perspective through the eyes of a young boy named TJ. As the film begins it is quickly conveyed that TJ (Devin Brochu), who lives with his Grandmother and Father (a broken, bearded and somewhat brilliant Rain Wilson) is mourning the recent loss of his Mother in a car crash. Lonely and depressed TJ trudges through each day where he is continually harassed by a school bully. His support system is virtually non-existent, with his Father having retreated into a self-medicated world of prescription pills and daytime television and his Grandmother to aloof to offer much in the way of assistance. Then by happenstance two other adults explode into TJ’s life. One is Levitt’s Hesher, emerging like some sort of gladiatorial spirit, armed with explosives and brimming with violence in easily one of the best character introductions of the year. The other is Natalie Portman’s Nicole, a frumpish cashier from the local supermarket who saves TJ from an impending ass-beating in the market’s parking lot and subsequently becomes the object of his unrequited affections. What flows from these meetings is a weird, schizophrenic mash-up of TJ’s coming of age story intermixed with his family’s supposed transcendence of grief, both of which mine the elephant’s graveyard of independent film to varying extents.
Hesher is a film that I desperately wanted to love (primarily due to the presence of Gordon-Levitt). However, despite the sublime acting from the major players – excluding Portman who, as always, is horrendously miscast – the film clearly doesn’t have a clue on where it’s going or what type of statement it wants to make on the plight of these characters. The film doesn’t present any sort of structure that would help to define this family’s tumultuous transition from grief and primarily the scenes simply lurch erratically from one to the next, often with drastic variations in tone. Also, and more importantly, the film is incapable of capitalizing on Levitt’s dramatic turn and refuses to formulate a definitive stance on who or what the character of Hesher is supposed to be. While early scenes of the film seem to strive for narrative ambiguity, with Levitt being presented as some sort of heavy-metal phantasm or as a visual representation of TJ’s volatile inner-self, later segments depict him interacting with other characters, thus nullifying our earlier interpretation and insinuating that this is a character meant to be comprehended in a literal sense.
This stark dichotomy, that is, the film’s non-committal incorporation of both the allegorical and the literal leads to a wholly unsatisfying final product. The film fails to conjure up an affecting meditation on grief that feels tangible or real because the crux of the story (Levitt’s Hesher) is such an overtly outrageous character, which would be fine if the film was willing to fully commit to this outrageousness. Sadly, Susser film is nowhere near daring enough and because the film contains such a vivid juxtaposition of the literal and the metaphorical his ability to depict the growth of his characters feels diluted and fails to register. Instead of having a clear focus on what Hesher is and how his presence creates a discernable impact on the lives of TJ and his family we get a series of scenes that could have appeared in two separate films and have been weirdly spliced together. Neither interpretation of Hesher’s character and impact is taken far enough. This invalidates the film’s ability to present TJ and his family arc in a docudrama fashion or in more abstract and whimsical terms, we obtain a weird conglomeration of both. In short, the film is a random, chaotic, and sometimes entertaining mess which, despite its alleged subject matter, leaves the audience feeling hollow and confused about what it was all supposed to mean. However, perhaps that is only fitting. I’m sure that’s exactly what a character like Hesher would have wanted.