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Warning: spoilers ahead!
I know you’ll be thrilled to hear that I finally saw Hesher. Since you and I are respectively Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s #1 and #2 fangirls, I figured I should see it ASAP. Also the opportunity to see a shirtless JGL striding around to a soundtrack of pure Metallica is, as far as I’m concerned, the stuff that wet dreams are made of. Unfortunately there is somewhat less Metallica than I had been led to expect. And equally unfortunately, I’m still not sure if Hesher is a good movie or not. It’s interesting, there are moments of genuine tension, the acting is simply fantastic, and the characters are compelling. But the film doesn’t quite resolve in a way that works, and the end loses steam and devolves into something that is, at the same time, outrageous and formulaic.
It’s never really clear whether Hesher is a failure or a philosopher. He clearly has a different view on life than that of the middle class family whose grief stricken stupor he invades with such destructive glee. Unfortunately the plot is fairly formulaic. It’s unquestionably a reworking of the mysterious stranger shows middle class family what it means to really live trope, albeit a somewhat twisted one.
When you boil Hesher down it becomes apparent that this is another story about boundless grief being expressed by the breaking of boundaries. The film that did this best was Death at a Funeral, which broke every boundary, pushed every envelope, and challenged every taboo in the book. And Hesher is clearly, especially in the funeral scene, hearkening back to that trope. The family grieves in inadequate but seemly silence, while their emotional traumas fester away. And their inexpressible grief is given voice by an uncouth sociopath who violates every rule and shows up drunk to grandma’s funeral to tell it how it really was. Familiar, right? (We all know that story. In fact it’s pretty much exactly the story John Cleese satirized in his eulogy for Graham Chapman. “Anything” he said, “but mindless good taste.” )And that, for all the extreme violence, disgusting jokes and severed noses that have gone before, is exactly how Hesher ends. The raging, angry, injured, unspeakable pain of their loss is manifested in Hesher, externalized in the form of a dirty, drunk, tattooed, heavy metal enthusiast who invades their lives when they are least able to cope with him and sets up shop in the middle of their house. There are even some interesting scenes where Hesher is literally sitting between TJ and his father, like an impenetrable brick wall.
But the movie falters when you realize that the flaws which motivate the plot are mirrored in the structure of the movie as a whole, and what might be interesting as a statement about resolution becomes simply irritating when inflicted on the viewer in the form of an unresolved plot. The family is stuck in a limbo state after the tragic death of TJ’s mother, and they seem unable or unwilling to escape the slough of despond (I’ve always wanted to use that phrase!) that they find themselves in. And Hesher, an uncivilized barbarian of a man, who knows no limits and respects no boundaries, is supposed to arrive in their lives like a storm and force some sort of resolution. And he does. The arrival and antics of Hesher does serve to shake TJ and his father out of their shock.
So Hesher is an agent of resolution, but then the plot totally fails to resolve Hesher! Which is a problem, since the grief of the family has been comprehensively upstaged by the mysterious and enigmatic title character. Who the heck is Hesher? What is his deal? Is he actually insane? How the hell old is he? Actually ages are one of the biggest problems in this film and made it difficult to fully engage with the characters. How old is this kid, really?
TJ seems to be a child. He certainly shops in the children’s section. But then he’s shown in what appears to be a high school. I originally thought he was maybe 10, but I guess he’s meant to be trembling on the verge of adolescence, as they say.
And then there’s Natalie Portman as Nicole. How old is she supposed to be? Frankly she could be anywhere between 17 and 30. Is she a high school student? She say’s she can’t make rent so maybe she’s like, 27, but then what the hell is she doing hanging around with TJ? This is compounded by the awkward love that TJ develops for Nicole, which is either puppy love, adolescent lust, or a desire for a new mother figure, and the film never really decides which. Maybe it’s meant to be all at once, and to be expressive of TJ’s confusion and volatile emotions. But it just came off as befuddling.
Then there’s Hesher. Like Nicole, he hovers awkwardly and somewhat ominously between misguided youth and felonious adulthood. He drives a terrifying van, blows things up, lives completely alone, with no friends or parents. And then there he he is in the high school with TJ. Is he a fellow student? I’m unsure. I understand setting a film in Anytown USA, and Anyyear AD, in order to make a story universal. And I guess I see why you might leave the ages uncertain, since then you can’t know what’s subversive, transgressive or rebellious and what isn’t. But it’s more likely that it will lead to a confused and irritated audience losing their engagement with the story as they wonder why the unemployed, violent drifter is hanging out in a high school.
There’s a deeper problem with it too, which is that it keeps you from knowing Hesher’s level of rebellion. Is this a lifestyle choice? Has Hesher rejected society and chosen to live outside it, in abandoned houses and garages, with no job, and his penchant for arson as his only entertainment? Or is this the result of neglect? When he barges into TJ’s house is he there to act as a fucked up mentor to TJ, to take revenge on him, or is it because he really needs a place to stay because he’s a kid too. Basically, is Hesher Hesher because he chose to be, or as a reaction to abuse? I think it makes a huge difference, but the story leaves that question not only unanswered, but unasked. It isn’t necessary that we understand Hesher, arguably he’s better as an unknowable force of nature, but it’s important that we get some idea of how much of this is intentional. Hesher makes a lot more sense as a jaded adult who has checked out of the rat race than an angsty teenager.
In fact, what would be really interesting is if Hesher turned out, many years ago, to have been Brendan from Brick. Crushed at the death of his girlfriend, surrounded by a drug culture, with enemies everywhere, Brendan begins a downward spiral that ultimately leads to him becoming Hesher.
And this is where the disconnect with the movie becomes a problem. The character study of Hesher and the plot of Hesher don’t actually coexist very well. Hesher is interesting enough to be worth a whole movie on his own, and Hesher as a study in externalized grief is also pretty good. And Joseph Gordon-Levitt is versatile enough to play either of those roles, which is basically what he ends up doing anyway, and it’s a tribute to his amazing abilities that he comes so close to pulling it off. Either of those movies could have been good. But unfortunately Hesher the enigmatic psycho completely upstaged Hesher the movie, and the two got confused.
So in the end I don’t really know what to make of Hesher. I wanted to see it initially because it combined two of my favorite things- nearly naked Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Metallica. And I’m not sure what I got instead. Some seriously amazing acting, that’s for sure, and whole bunch of production stills of JGL looking like this:
So it’s not all bad. I think Natalie agrees with me. She and I are both thinking the same thing. “I never thought that Tommy from 3rd Rock from the Sun could ever in a million years grown up to look like that.” I really wish my 17 year old self could see this.
I hope you get to see it sometime soon Torte. The acting alone is worth it. Heck, JGL’s unexpected pecs alone are worth it.