(Re)Master of Puppets
Not even Joseph Gordon-Levitt can save Hesher
by Molly Templeton
HESHER: Directed by Spencer Susser. Written by Spencer Susser and David Michod. Story by Brian Charles Frank. Cinematography, Morgan Susser. Editors, Spencer Susser and Michael McCusker. Music, Francois Tetaz. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Natalie Portman, Devin Brochu, Piper Laurie and Rainn Wilson. Newmarket Films, 2011. R. 100 minutes.
Id thought I would follow Joseph Gordon-Levitt anywhere. The former Third Rock from the Sun kid has taken a skipping, adventurous path through indie and mainstream film, alternating roles like the motormouthed young detective in Rian Johnsons smart high school noir Brick with turns in the likes of G.I. Joe. I used to save up William Gibson novels, forever staying one behind so I knew Id always have one more to read; now I save Gordon-Levitt films. Knowing that Mysterious Skin is still out there, buried in my Netflix queue, means I can watch the underrated The Lookout again.
But I cant get behind Hesher, in which Gordon-Levitt semi-stars as the title character, a metalhead drifter who washes up in the life of young, sad T.J. (Devin Brochu). Put upon by a redheaded bully, ignored by his pill-popping father (Rainn Wilson) and doted on, vaguely, by his misty grandma (Piper Laurie), T.J. runs into Hesher in an unfinished housing development. Their encounter, brief but explosive, leads inexplicably to Hesher taking up residence in the family garage.
Maybe they let him stick around because no ones sure how to stand up to him, or maybe its that he climbs a telephone pole with a screwdriver and upgrades the family television package so it gets more channels. Heshers provenance is irrelevant. Hes a plot device brought in to shake up T.J.s life, to make him ballsy enough to swear or stand up to a bully or face the pain thats smothering his family.
For a little while, I entertained the possibility that Hesher might be a better movie were Gordon-Levitts character like the giant rabbit in Harvey, invisible to all but T.J. Grief-striken, hormonal kid cooks up a troublemaking figment of his hormonally spiked imagination! But this guy is for real. Well, sort of.
Hesher is a sad-kid movie with heavy metal frosting. Gordon-Levitt, a twinkle in his eye and grit in his voice, throws himself into his role as designated shit-stirrer, but the part is a series of quips and descriptive cues: Hesher likes metal and dirty jokes! And has funny, aggressive tattoos! And asks questions one might generally describe as socially inappropriate! But hes nice to old ladies and has enough of a heart of gold to help T.J. get in touch with his fearless side, and help Pops wake up a little bit. As for Nicole (Natalie Portman), the nice, vaguely feisty grocery store clerk on whom T.J. has a whopper of a crush, well, Hesher can probably help her with her sadness too, if you know what I mean. Hesher does whatever he wants; conveniently, the other characters often want those things, too.
Hesher has its deeply, peculiarly funny moments ã mostly due to Gordon-Levitts delivery, like when he manages to make the deployment of an explosive almost forcefully casual ã but theyre so few and far between that you're better off waiting for someone to compile all Heshers bits of bizarro-wisdom into one three-minute YouTube video.
Youve seen sad-kid movies before. In most of them, the kid, usually a boy, learns a Valuable Life Lesson and then theres a cathartic moment. Adding Pabst and Metallica doesnt quite qualify as changing the formula. Despite the involvement of Animal Kingdom writer David Michod, Hesher is as safe and shallow as its title character is id-driven and profane.