Hesher is a strange, unpleasant film that lacks the necessary tools to successfully get its point across. Rest assured, I did eventually get the point: Rather than dwell on your losses, you should instead focus on what remains. Sadly, it didn’t resonate. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been required to wade through nearly 100 minutes of shiftless storytelling in order to get there. It also would have helped if the characters had not been so opaque. Consider the title character, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. He’s a violent, obscene, chain-smoking, antisocial drifter whose long black hair and rotting teeth make him look like a junked-out heavy metal rock star. He spends most of the film shirtless, allowing us decent glimpses of his tattoos; on his chest is a stick figure blowing his brains out, while on his back is a giant clawed hand giving us the bird.
He enters the life of a pre-adolescent boy named T.J. (Devin Brochu), who has been distant and angry since a car accident claimed the life of his mother some months earlier. Hesher’s initial appearances led me to believe the filmmakers were aiming for something along the lines of Fight Club – he would be an imaginary character, a visual manifestation of T.J.’s unprocessed pain. This would have been an interesting approach. Alas, he proves to be quite real when he willfully takes residence in the garage of T.J.’s house. There we find T.J.’s father, Paul (Rainn Wilson), who since his wife’s death has been in a depression so severe that he spends most of day asleep on the couch. When he’s awake, he’s numbed by his prescription medications. We also find T.J.’s ailing grandmother (Piper Laurie), a woman so disconnected and unassertive that she blindly accepts the sudden appearance of Hesher as a normal event.
But there’s nothing about Hesher that’s normal. There is instinctual within him a need to help T.J. along, which would be acceptable were it not for the fact that he has no vested interest in the kid’s problems. His method’s are not only criminal, they’re also just plain mean. They’re also pointless. Consider the scene in which he takes T.J. to the home of the school bully, singlehandedly pours gasoline onto his convertible, and sets it aflame by flicking in a cigarette; he immediately speeds off in his disgusting black van, forcing T.J. to run down back alleys and over fences for a few blocks. Eventually, Hesher spots him and invites him into the car. T.J. refuses. Out of anger, Hesher speeds up and hits T.J., knocking him off his feet. Hesher laughs at this. So too did the audience I sat with. For me, this was not very funny. I guess I don’t have a sense of humor. At least, that’s what I’ve been told on numerous occasions.
The most inexplicable character is Nicole (Natalie Portman), a cashier for a local supermarket. She rescues T.J. from a school bully, quickly befriends him, and then, like everyone else in T.J.’s life, finds herself in the presence of Hesher. This guy is like a black hole – if you get close enough, you ultimately cannot escape his destructive gravitational pull. He’s an emotional void, like depression itself. But what has been gained by introducing Nicole in the first place? We learn that she can’t afford car insurance, that she feels insignificant, and that T.J. has developed something of an innocent puppy-love crush on her. But apart from that, she contributes just about nothing to the story.
There are two plot points that should have been compelling but were ultimately about as odd and impenetrable as the rest of the film. The first is a scene of T.J. and his father at a group therapy session with a grief counselor. Here I am, watching Paul and a few other select adults admitting they have a problem, and I’m feeling strangely detached. I should not have felt this way. Quite the opposite – I should have had some kind of strong emotional reaction.
The second is T.J.’s repeated attempts to be physically in contact with the car his mother died in. The opening scene is of him frantically bicycling after the truck towing the wreck away; he’s plows into a few moving cars, but that doesn’t stop him from getting right back on his bike and moving forward. Did I mention his arm is in a cast? Anyway, the car ends up at an impound lot, and despite the fact that the school bully works there, T.J. continuously goes there to plead with the owner to let him have it. I can understand the need to retain some semblance of his past life, but the way he reacts to this situation is just plain bizarre. The only reason this was included, so far as I can tell, was as a setup for the final shot, which was not only implausible but also thematically inconsistent with the rest of the film. Hesher is a deep mystery, a film that knows what it wants to say but not what it wants to be.
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