I have 490 movies in my Netflix Instant queue. I tend to maybe watch one thing for every five things I add, but now my library is full and I have to make room. Serious watching must begin. So, every Monday I’m going to pick a random movie out of my queue and review the shit out of it. But (like Jesus), I’m also thinking about you and your unwieldy queue and all the movies in it you want to watch but don’t have time to now that you’ve become so awesome and popular. Let me know if there’s something that’s been gathering digital dust in your Netflix Instant library and I’ll watch that, too. One Monday for your queue and the next Monday for mine and so forth. Let’s do this.
What’s the movie? Jesus’ Son (1999)
What’s it rated? Rated R for hope, despair, denial, anger, acceptance, pain, back to despair, over to confusion and then then right back over to hope again. I’m pretty sure watching this movie=going to a meeting.
Did people make it? Written by Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia and Oren Moverman. Based on the novel by Denis Johnson. Directed by Alison Maclean. Acted by Billy Crudup, Samantha Morton, Denis Leary, Jack Black, Dennis Hopper, Michael Shannon, Miranda July, Will Patton, Holly Hunter and Ben Shenkman.
What’s it like in one sentence? Forrest Gump meets Drugstore Cowboy‘s kinder, gentler younger brother.
Why did you watch it? Chewers Jason the Mason and Gabe T. made me do it, plus I remember really liking it back in the day, figured it was time for a re-visit.
What’s it about in one paragraph? Billy Crudup plays Fuck Head, a drug addict who’s just merrily stumbling along through life having one strange encounter after the next. It’s only when he meets Michelle (Samantha Morton) that the narrative of his life starts to take on cohesion and he starts trying to lead a somewhat normal life. But with all the heroin, speed, mushrooms and pills he’s taking, what kind of life could that even be?
Play or remove from my queue? Play it right now, as there probably aren’t too many better movies than this one floating around your queue. Everything about this film from the masterful direction by Alison Maclean, to the absolutely flawless lead performance by Billy Crudup, Jesus’ Son is one for the ages. I used to appreciate the movie when it first came out for being a “cool” drug movie, but upon re-watching it for the column I realized that it’s more of a character study than a drug movie and a fairly brilliant one at that.
I first read Denis Johnson when I was a senior in high school and I felt like I’d found a kindred spirit. His novel Already Dead and his short story collection Jesus’ Son effectively changed the way that I read fiction and, in many ways, changed how I viewed myself. The collections of misfits that populate Johnson’s works were people that I recognized in my day to day in school and some of their adventures mirrored ones I had in my own life, mostly. I never accidentally ran over a rabbit and hopped out in order to skin it and make some rabbit stew, but I might have if I ever carried a hunting knife or ate roadkill. Johnson is never afraid to make his characters fall from hilarious into pathetic or from difficult into unlikable, which is a rare commodity to find in a writer when most writers find their characters too precious to drag down to our level. In the film version of Jesus’ Son, all the characters are at times pathetic and unlikable, but they always remain sympathetic even at their ugliest, which proves to me that no matter how awesome your story is, without empathy then it’s all wasted celluloid. If the writer hates their characters then why should we give a shit?
The thing that makes or breaks these big ensemble films (especially ones that are just a series of vignettes like this one is) is whether the ensemble can all create believable characters with important relations to the overall theme or whether it just seems like a cavalcade of guest appearances, whose only purpose is to get some big names on the marquee. Jesus’ Son doesn’t fuck around, though. Every single one of the characters in the film have an express reason for existing, which is to interact with Crudup’s FH and teach him some kind of life lesson. Denis Leary and Jack Black both have incredibly powerful scenes to play and both actors completely knock their moments out of the park. Jack Black is of course playing Jack Black (which he’s done all the way back to Mr. Show and Bob Roberts), but this film really showed me that with the right material his shtick can work much better than is does in dreck like Gulliver’s Travels and Year One. Denis Leary on the other hand (gripes about stealing his stand-up routines from Bill Hicks aside) has been giving what I think is one of the seminal television performances of the last decade with Rescue Me, so I knew he had it in him. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the sorely missed Dennis Hopper who has an amazing scene in a mental hospital with FH methodically and gently shaving his face. The scene manages to not only be a powerhouse of the acting craft, but also manages to underline all of the film’s themes in about three minutes without ever getting preachy or obvious. it’s a masterclass in acting that’s up there with his legendary scene in True Romance where he and Chris Walken discuss the finer points on being Sicilian.
But the real find here is Billy Crudup. I’ve always been fairly amazed by him just from his performances in Almost Famous, Waking the Dead and Public Enemies, but I’ve never seen him in a role where he carries every frame of the picture flawlessly. This movie would not have worked with a lesser actor and Crudup more than proves he’s got the chops to headline a feature. Hollywood keeps trying to force us to believe that actors like Channing Tatum and Sam Worthington are movie stars, but Crudup’s performance in Jesus’ Son should have made him a household name like Johnny Depp or Tom Hanks. I thought Watchmen would have been a more high profile gig for him, but I don’t know if he’s even more well known or respected than Jim Caviezel at this point. Can we get Crudup his own Jesus torture porn? Maybe a golf movie?
I could honestly talk about this movie for another thousand words but all I can really do is implore you to watch it if you already haven’t. It’s most definitely in my top 50 favorite movies of all time list that I keep changing as the years go by (I never thought The Garbage Pail Kids Movie would get bumped from the list but life is constantly amazing me). It’s a downward spiral drug movie that is never about the drugs or the downward spiral. It has more on it’s mind than that. Even in the film’s bleakest moments there’s always the possibility of hope just over the horizon and FH is such an affable protagonist you can only go along for the ride and hope he finds a way out of the lifestyle that will most certainly kill him sooner rather than older. Jesus’ Son is a minor masterpiece that deserves a much wider audience than it ever received. Change that right now. I’ll wait.
Do you have an interesting fun-fact? I was surprised to learn that the author of the novel, Denis Johnson, appears in the film as a patient at the hospital Billy Crudup works at. He walks up to the nurses station with a knife buried to it’s hilt in his eye. It’s a wonderful little scene that Johnson plays perfectly. Also, while I have you, read his books if you haven’t had the chance. If depressing, slice of life drug stories aren’t in your wheelhouse, check out one of his more recent efforts, Tree of Smoke. It’s a lush spy novel unlike any you’ve ever read.
What does Netflix say I’d like if I like this? Why? Grind (never seen but it has Billy Crudup and Adrienne Shelly in it, so I’m there), Light Sleeper (Dafoe and Rockwell in a Paul Schrader movie I’ve never seen! WTF?), Bunny & The Bull (a comedy by the minds behind The Mighty Boosh?? Thank you, Netflix), Southbounders (a movie about hiking. I’ll allow it), Leaves of Grass (another excellent drug movie that’s not really about drugs).
What does Jared say I’d like if I like this? Why? Drugstore Cowboy (similar messages), Slacker (both films talk about similar shit), Waking Life (tonally alike), Being There (F.H. reminded me of Chance) and Thunderbirds (just reminding you that shit exists).
What is Netflix’s best guess for Jared? 4.3
What is Jared’s best guess for Jared? 4.8
Can you link to the movie? I sure can!
Any last thoughts? It’s rare that movies are this good. It was really nice to check back and discover a bit of a forgotten classic. Much thanks to the Chewers who recommended it.
Did you watch anything else this week? I watched the first episode of the BBC’s Sherlock and was absolutely captivated. Even with a name as ridiculous as Benedict Cumberbatch, old Bennie owns every second playing Sherlock and Martin Freeman makes his Watson the definitive Watson.
Next Week? Doghouse or Blood Creek? Until then, Chewers.