Jesus' Son is that rare film that actually lives up to the book, even though Denis Johnson's book of short stories seems to make for slim cinematic possibilities.
The book reinvented the short story; narrative threads related each piece, but too much was left unsaid to even consider a linear film. While the screenplay is loyal enough to the book to preserve its genius, the writers take liberties with the stories to make them coherent as one episodic but complete narrative.
Jesus' Son is an elegiac, sometimes horrific story about a young man known as "Fuckhead" (Billy Crudup), a lost soul in his search of a better life but never quite sure where to find it. Michelle (Samantha Morton) is his catalyst, is in fact the one who introduces FH to heroin, and during this morning scene, while he eats his cereal and watches, she shoots up
He's amoral, ready to be dragged along in his life until he has a reason to move, and his acquaintances oblige him in his need to be driven to action.
There's Wayne (Denis Leary), who convinces FH to drive him to his old house, the memory of another life, where they tear the copper wire from the walls, enough to scrape together money for a heavy drunk and some dope. Wayne is ripping at his former self just to make his present condition bearable. And to remind him, his wife flies (yes, flies) by naked and attached to a glider like an angel of his past. FH observes this all, curious and grateful to have companionship, to be doing something. He comments that it is one of the best days of his life.
Jack Black (aka Tenacious D, also seen in High Fidelity) plays Georgie, a pill-popping orderly, who, after a hilarious encounter with a character in the ER played by none other than Denis Johnson, drives FH out to the middle of nowhere.
Nothing really happens except meaningless, drug-induced roaming and blathering. Yet, FH is revealed. Crudup brings the character out in the scene, presents him in all his confused and erratic thoughts.
There are the residents of a nursing home - crippled, old, deformed - who surround FH in his work during the day while he goes to AA meetings at night. The home is a setting in which FH seems out of place. However, it is not surprising to find him there, and he grows into it, just like he melts into his surroundings throughout the movie.
Though these characters bring out comedic and sad scenes in the film, it is FH's relationship with Michelle that reveals the most beauty and sadness. Throughout the movie, Michelle and FH move from shooting smack to talking of getting clean. It is obvious that they can envision a better life, but together they are incapable of finding it. They crash into each other, reactionaries to each other's foolish actions, and they often find it impossible to live a stable emotional existence in each other's company.
Of course, this is what makes the film interesting. Fuckhead is willing to hitchhike miles in the rain with nothing but a sleeping bag for shelter just so he can get Michelle back from the guy who stole her. Then, with the frustrating logic of relationships so obsessive, the two have a terrible fight. It's maddening but real.
Directed by Alison Maclean, the movie roams through FH's life - from the streets and farms of Iowa City to the El trains of Chicago to a rest home in Phoenix - following his narration, often using firecracker-like lines from the book, quick flashes of light that reveal bits and pieces of FH's character.
Johnson's stunning journal-like prose drives the movie forward, propelling Fuckhead forward to something of a resolution in life.
Maclean takes liberties with the human perception of reality to make those scenes that involve drugs more memorable. Though this has been commonplace cinema since the 60s cult films, Maclean uses the methods sparingly, just enough to accurately present the world of FH.
Fuckhead is the guy no one wants to be. Things keep happening to him that some might say he deserves, but it is through Crudup's performance that FH becomes human and the story becomes clear.
Jesus' Son provides a peek into the life of a young man, trying to claw his way out of the lifestyle he has made for himself. However, his hopeless cruise through life reveals small moments of promise that the viewer hopes will be enough for him to pick himself up and walk away by his own free will.