I’d like you to take a look at this. That is the explicit thesis statement for Rubber, a film proudly dedicated to the concept of “no reason.” The explanation given is that life has no reason, yet Lieutenant Chad uses rather petty examples to prove this point. He talks about how we can’t see air, how our brains are always active and how we have different sausage preferences, but why not go one step further?
“Why did my mom die in a car crash?” No reason. “Why did that guy with the gorgeous wife have an affair?” No reason. “Why can’t I find employment after job-searching for two straight years?” No fucking reason. Every day and often without warning, shit happens in life for absolutely no reason. We can either cry about it or we can count our blessings and try to improve matters. This is the implicit thesis statement of Hesher.
This film tells the story of T.J. Forney, a grade-school kid whose mom just died a few months prior. He lives with his dad, now just a shell of a man who can barely get off the couch to dress himself, and his grandma, who’s pretty far into senility. T.J. himself is in pretty bad shape. He’s withdrawn, he can’t stop mourning his mom and he can’t fend for himself against a school bully. Then Hesher comes in.
Hesher is the personification of “no reason.” He’s a pyromaniac, he’s a freeloader and he’s prone to random outbursts of property destruction. His age, background and full name are all totally unknown. Above all else, Hesher does not take “no” for an answer. He’ll do what he want and go where he pleases, no matter who tells him he can’t. The guy is a force of nature, so confident and aggressive that he can always get his way through sheer intimidation alone.
And during this movie’s first act, he moves into T.J.’s garage. If you’d like to know why, you haven’t been reading very closely.
Throughout the film, Hesher acts as the comedy relief and does whatever batshit thing the plot needs to keep moving forward while T.J. reacts and develops in response until he’s strong enough to take over the reins. Hesher steals the show, but it’s really T.J.’s story. In simpler terms, Hesher works as the Jack Sparrow to T.J.’s Will Turner.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Hesher, and presumably took at least five years off his lifespan in the process. JGL is absolutely fearless in this role, smoking huge amounts of tobacco, drinking hard, walking around like he isn’t clad only in briefs and tattoos, expending huge amounts of energy trashing the scenery, he even jumps into a pool from a board that he lit on fire. Perhaps best of all is that JGL portrays Hesher as if there’s constantly something going through his head. There’s clearly an internal logic to everything he does, even if the logic isn’t comprehensible or even rational to an outside observer. In short: This guy is totally fucking insane.
Natalie Portman (a producer here) also appears as a grocery checkout girl named Nicole. This girl is down on her luck, living in a crappy apartment, driving a wreck of a car and strangely unable to get more hours at her work. Naturally, she helps give T.J. a new perspective on life and provides someone else for Hesher to take in. This is easily the least glamorous role I’ve ever seen Portman play and everyone involved with this film put a Herculean amount of effort into making her look plain. They don’t entirely succeed (how could they, really?), but it was important to the plot that she have some beauty under her giant glasses and unkempt hair. As for Portman’s performance, she very successfully manages to make the character charming and humorous in a self-effacing way. Imagine the Kat Dennings character in Thor with less self-esteem and you’d be getting close.
T.J.’s dad is played by Rainn Wilson, and watching his performance here was quite interesting after Super. There is absolutely none of the energy in Paul Forney that Wilson brought to Frank D’Arbo. I don’t know how Wilson did it, but he managed to look like he had totally lost his soul. It’s chilling, quite frankly. Piper Laurie does a similar job delivering the adorably addled dementia of T.J.’s grandma.
As for our main character, T.J. is played by Devin Brochu. He’s a relative newcomer whose few credits include a role in Rubber (small world!). Brochu really earns his keep here, wonderfully selling his character’s damaged emotional state and his development through the film. He might have done too good a job at portraying the character’s “lashing out” phase, though. Seriously, when all of that pent-up rage and frustration finally gets released, it’s scary.
So, we’ve got great actors giving solid performances playing strong characters. Yet as I left the theater, I kept feeling like something was off. Something was missing. The film wasn’t perfect, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on how it might be improved. After reading some other reviews of the movie, it finally came to me: This movie is all set-up and no pay-off.
Our characters go through some serious suffering in this film. There are beatings done, injuries inflicted, hearts broken, property damaged and felony-level crimes committed, yet the only person who isn’t affected by any consequences whatsoever is Hesher. Given his choice in lifestyle, I would’ve expected Hesher to die at the end, but that isn’t what happened. It’s one thing for Hesher to be portrayed as a genuinely dangerous human being, but it’s quite another for the film to depict that as a good thing!
Perhaps more importantly, the movie seems designed for some rather drastic character changes at the end, but that isn’t exactly what happens. Take T.J.’s last scene with Nicole, for example: That whole subplot ends in a very awkward and unsatisfactory way, with so much clearly left unsaid and unresolved. As for T.J. himself, he gets right up to the point where he realizes what he’s learned and how to put into words how he’s changed over the course of the film, but he’s ultimately unable to take that step. Instead, Hesher has to barge in out of nowhere and make that speech on his behalf, naturally doing so in the crudest and most profane way possible.
If we as an audience are willing to endure so much pain and suffering with our protagonists, it’s generally expected that the storytellers should provide our protagonists — and by extension, us — with an adequate reward for it, even if that reward is nothing more tangible than personal enlightenment. We see T.J. mourn his mom, we see him beaten at the hands of a bully, we see all the physical and emotional anguish that Hesher puts him through and we see him finally fight back, embracing his id to an unhealthy degree. Yet when the time comes to show T.J. as a more moderate and well-balanced person, the movie holds back. The movie implies that he and his father have finally decided it’s time to stop mourning, though we never see it explicitly or how their lives are different for all their trials by fire.
Hesher is well-made and it has some outstanding performances in its cast, but the subject matter and the means of its expression keep this from being “must-see” material. If you’re curious, this is easily worth a rental.