‘Hesher’: Chaos theory

May 10, 2011

Ah, those lives of quiet desperation, stuck in ruts from which there seems to be no unsticking.

Everyone, it would seem, needs a Hesher in their lives.

Although not necessarily “Hesher.” Though Spencer Susser’s dark comedy hangs in there for about half of its running time, it eventually runs out of ideas and goes soft, when it’s been hard-edged from the jump.

Still, there’s something exhilarating about “Hesher”: Joseph Gordon-Levitt. As the title character, a headbanger with a mononym, Gordon-Levitt is a stringy-haired force of anarchy, wandering around shirtless showing his inky, home-made tattoos, cigarette screwed into the corner of his mouth.

He appears as though summoned from a bottle, a malevolent genie with a bad word for everyone – but also a purpose. He shows up unannounced in the Forney household, ready to shake things up and get this family out of the pit of self-pity into which it’s fallen.

Paul Forney (Rainn Wilson) is pill-addled and depressed, still in shock from the death of his wife a few months earlier. As a result, his adolescent son T.J. (Devin Brochu) is left to fend for himself – and he’s got issues of his own.

The first is the smashed-up family car. T.J. is initially seen pursuing a tow-truck that’s hauling the badly damaged SUV off to the local gas station. The station owner chases him off when he tries to simply sit in the car – and eventually consigns it to a junkyard, to T.J.’s alarm.

Meanwhile, T.J. has incited a classmate (Brendan Hill), who does odd jobs at the gas station and now makes it his mission to make T.J. miserable. But T.J.’s father is so zonked on anti-depressants that he’s oblivious to the fact that his son is being viciously bullied.

One day, on the way to school, an angry T.J. has an encounter with a stranger – who turns out to be Hesher and whose living situation T.J. accidentally disrupts. So Hesher simply moves into T.J.’s house – and the clueless Paul and his guileless elderly mother (Piper Laurie) assume that he’s an ill-mannered friend of T.J.

“What’s he doing here?” Paul asks.

“Laundry,” the perplexed T.J. says, trying to keep things honest and uncomplicated.

T.J., meanwhile, has developed a crush on the clerk (Natalie Portman) at a local grocery store. Hesher notices and begins coaching him – but in the crudest possible terms.

As played with a ruthless self-control by Gordon-Levitt, Hesher is like the devil on your shoulder, urging you to give in to your worst impulses – and a walking id surrendering to every urge of his own. He’s interested in T.J. – less as a friend than as a guinea pig, a subject for experiments in Hesher’s own life-laboratory of chaos.

To Susser’s credit, he doesn’t transform Hesher from a bad-tempered sociopath into a heavy-metal teddybear. Instead, Hesher’s acts of violence and aggression have a large splatter radius, affecting T.J. and Paul as well as the objects of Hesher’s antipathy.

Or almost: At the end, Hesher exhibits actual empathy and even remorse. In other words, he becomes (just for a minute) a little bit (just a little bit) of a softie. But it’s enough to signal that Susser doesn’t quite have the courage of his convictions – that someone convinced him that he had to somehow redeem Hesher.

Still, Gordon-Levitt has an expressive deadpan – marvelous control of his eyebrows and an air of menace. His lean, leathery physique (covered with crude tattoos, including a stick figure vomiting displayed on his chest) and flat-footed gait convey purpose, even when his face suggests nothing more than intense boredom.

Brochu has range as T.J., a kid flailing for his life who finally learns to fight back, whether against the bully at school, his drug-insulated father or Hesher himself. Portman makes the most of a small role, as does Wilson. And Piper Laurie has a deliciously dotty quality in a small but poignant part.

“Hesher” offers a strong message: Stop feeling sorry for yourself and move on. It’s surprisingly entertaining for a long time, though its way of conveying that message may prove too sharp-edged for some viewers.

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