Over the course of a lifetime, you may often find yourself in the company of a strange coterie of people—weird frenemies and loose associates you don’t fully trust but often rely on for one thing or another. More so, your association with these people can find you in odd situations, ones you could have never anticipated and can barely fathom when they’re happening, and even upon reflection seem like bizarre dreams rather than actual events that transpired and of which you were an active participant. Some may find themselves in an active battleground with bombs exploding around them while others will sit behind a large desk barking orders and experiencing great amounts of power surging through their being. But for the great majority, our strange moments occur at 2:30 in the morning in the company of near-strangers as we take part in activities that are far out of our normative state.
We can classify these sorts of moments as existential, sexual, or ecstatic. And indeed, they may be: after all, innocence is quickly shed in this life, never to return and often leading to more and more salacious and desultory moments as life wears on. 1999’s Jesus’ Son frames and addresses a life misspent on drugs and the fleeting moments of pleasure they afford with a near-reverence for the bizarre, singular moments that many of us experience through one form or another—and that these are the important parts of our story, the ones that ultimately shape and inform who we are as a person.
For the sake of this article and its thesis, let’s assume that this writer has had his share of experiences in the course of his life—none as severe or drenched in sustained intoxication as the protagonist of Jesus’ Son (FH), but ones that would be rated NC-17 for much of its content nonetheless—and that this film highlighted that the most frivolous, damaging, and ultimately self-destructive moments of his life up to this point may have been the most important ones. Not the ones he would include in a scrapbook—no, PG-rated experiences inhabit that tome—but the ones that left an indelible impression upon him that had crafted the voiceless, invisible part of him that is the actual self: the filter, the soul of himself that informs, creates, and navigates how he exists in objective reality.
Such is Jesus’ Son—a spot-on adaptation of the late Denis Johnson’s brilliant eponymous short story collection, first published in 1992 and somehow adapted for the screen in 1999. FH is neither a good or bad man: he’s simply a lost drug addict who has the best of intentions in the worst of circumstances. Drifting from episode to episode in the young man’s life, Jesus’ Son depicts how his worst inclinations bring out and illuminate both the best and worst of his character. Unlike many harrowing “drug addiction” movies, FH’s story ends up somewhat OK, although not perfect. Perhaps that’s the lasting influence of the film—that the past quickly becomes the past, but our own past shapes who we are today and who we will eventually be to both ourselves and other people.
While FH’s life seems like a random jumble of one drug addict’s half-remembered extreme moments, in truth it’s a sly indictment on the human condition as it stands in the modern world: although history may forget us, we never forget ourselves or what has transpired between us and the rest of the world. It’s only in realizing who we are—our nature, our weaknesses, and our strengths—through this gauntlet called life can we ever find peace and understanding. We may not all be as fucked up as FH, but we are all sinners. That even he may find some peace and redemption gives hope that though we may be groping along in the dark, unable to find the door that will lead us to the light and salvation, at least the handle is there—and it may eventually open once we find it.
Jesus’ Son – A Cult Classic
Much like Johnson’s short story collection and ultimately how we remember our own lives, Jesus’ Son is told by an unreliable narrator who mixes up, romanticizes, and ultimately finds his own life’s story a subjective experience prone to embellishment. FH (initials for Fuck Head, a moniker given to him by an abusive boyfriend of his soon-to-be lover at the beginning of the film; however, he is ultimately nameless to the audience) is found drifting from one odd experience to the next, pulled into these moments from his drug addiction. Played by Billy Crudup, FH is a sensitive, spiritual young man whose VO narration connects the disparate episodes of the film, often reflecting on the meaning he had discerned from his experiences while chasing his next high.
Set in the 1970s, Jesus’ Son has a timeless quality to it, frozen in amber as many period pieces are. Although we are not provided with closure (one of the overarching themes of the film) as to where FH ultimately lands in life, it is fitting in a film that starts mise-en-scene (specifically, with FH hitchhiking and then being involved in a horrific car accident with a family that picked him up—of which he foretold) with its actor that immediately establishes the correlation between the visually immediate and disconnected narration of the present-past dynamic that’s throughout the film. We are simply watching a man trying to piece together his life experiences to the audience as he can best recall it, and his VO reminds us that he’s still “alive” and simply speaking in past tense. For himself and the audience, there can be no closure simply because his life has not ended yet.
Moreover, there is no true closing curtain because his story is only told the way he remembers it and feels it at this moment, and this moment will obviously pass. What he may remember or—most importantly—feel about the same events may change next week or next year. It’s a first draft life story we’re watching before corrections can mar or alter events as he sees fit. In both the book and film, this is the best narrative approach to such a story: of a present-day character talking about his past without promising that everything he’s relating is the absolute truth. Even more accurately, this is the tale of a long-time drug addict attempting to relate the story of his life; of course his memory of events isn’t going to be crystal-clear.
Instead, this allows both the book and film to indulge in the protagonist’s fantasies and subjective understanding of the events of his life. Especially since many of these memories were filtered through a junkhead’s perspective, what he says may not be the truth but his truth, which is far more interesting and ultimately accessible to the viewing audience.
Lost Souls, Found Lives
FH (who, significantly, is never given a true name outside the abbreviation of Fuck Head) is a truly lost soul. While portrayed in the film by a young, handsome Billy Crudup, FH lives the life familiar to anybody that’s never found a foothold in life: of a drifter, vagabond, and overall fuck-up. At the start, it’s almost a miracle that he has a car, much less a stable place to live: FH is a junkhead that will take any and every high available to him and is unwilling—if not unable—to find gainful employment. His central focus is in trying to maintain a relationship with fellow damaged goods Michelle (played as a revelation by Samantha Morton), a young woman whose own issues with drug addiction pull the good-hearted FH into a world he can barely comprehend, much less handle.
But FH finds poignancy in his sordid life’s story: while unbelievably tragic things befall Michelle and FH (which are nothing short than an increasing heroin addiction, loss of a child, and eventual death by intentional overdose), FH still tries to remain on the side of light, seeing each experience in hindsight as a potential part of his salvation at the end of the tunnel.
And FH loves Michelle truly: they even seem like soulmates to the audience (or at least, this is how FH presents their dynamic). Both are hopelessly lost drug addicts looking to experience the next high they can find. While FH gets hooked on dope, he mentions how wonderful their short amount of time together in a hotel while loaded with heroin is and how much they loved each other. As honestly as he can, FH also relates to the audience how terrible their come-down is, leading to another shattered moment in their relationship.
But two dysfunctional co-dependents like this cannot keep separate forever. FH suffers from a heroin overdose, of which Michelle is conscious enough to save him from. Besides this, she’s carrying his child, so she’s trying to stay sober for the child’s sake.
It’s when she decides have an abortion and comes the soul-shattering revelation that due to her drug addiction she is unable to carry a child to term does she play the most dangerous game: intentionally overdosing so that her partner may bring her back just as she had he, in a twisted way to “prove” his love to her. Of course, it doesn’t work: he’s too late and she’s long gone by the time he pulls himself out of a stupor to realize what’s happening.
This is Jesus’ Son playing with the audience, as it does throughout its entire run: dark moments are surprisingly light and funny while the actual worst moments come unexpected and keeps the audience on its toes throughout.
First and second viewings of this film are satisfying for this very reason: one moment we’re watching as two characters (one played by an on-point Jack Black) delight in saving a litter of rabbits from their dying mother in the snow, the next we’re laughing—albeit out of shock–as FH realizes he has accidentally crushed the whole litter in his drug stupor and can feel their small body parts as they squish against his body. Jesus’ Son doesn’t proselytize against the dangers of drug addiction but earnestly reminds viewers that being under the influence leads to terrible behaviors, decisions, and overall negligence that can often lead to others’ deaths or at the very least increasingly diminished circumstances. While it may be funny, it’s only funny as a memory and out of context to an objective audience: being in these moments are horrifying and disturbing, and ultimately sad for those that find themselves in such predicaments.
Redemption and The Holy Fool
Much like the euphoria FH chases throughout the film and finds in a variety of substances, ultimately he gets clean and begins working as an attendant at an assisted living facility. There, he begins a romance with a disabled woman (played by Holly Hunter) and experiences a new kind of euphoria—a spiritual one. Walking through the facility, FH floats dream-like from patient to patient, and his touch illuminates them. He experiences transcendence in his ultimate redemption, and his odyssey as a holy fool in the drug-soaked Northwest underworld comes to a close.
Jesus’ Son is a film about redemption and spirituality as much as it is a gritty exploration of a youth misspent. FH is never portrayed as a bad person, after all: he’s simply mixed-up and without guidance. His attempts at kindness through the film, even when doing wrong, are meant to be taken by the audience as small, positive gestures of a drug addict who pulls himself from the brink of total immorality.
In one scene, FH sees an unlocked car loaded with someone’s stuff. It’s cold out, so he steals a jacket. He then goes to steal the guitar laying in the back seat, but thinks better of it and puts it back. In other words, FH may steal, but he does so out of necessity, not out of malice or greed. After all, if a starving man steals a loaf of bread, who could hold such a trespass against him?
FH is a holy fool throughout, with his narration serving as meta commentary that explains his moments of forgiveness even to those that wrong him, or to further detail the sorrow and conflict he feels over the more tragic events of his life. The audience never hates him but feels sympathy and sorrow for this good-hearted young man as he flails from one disaster to another in his life.
It’s never sentimental but often a metaphysical depiction of a holy fool who mistakes the high that come from drugs as holy instructions. It’s only in the end that he seems to finally see the light, and with that realization the divine is revealed to him.
Our Own Trespasses
Jesus’ Son is a highly original film from a unique book that takes the point of view of a frequently intoxicated main character as he tells his disoriented life story. It was never going to be a mainstream film but a hidden gem for the art film crowd to find. Directed by journeyman Alison Maclean, who has worked heavily in music videos and television, the overall tone and cinematography of Jesus’ Son fits the film’s loosely spiritual content and metaphysical quality. Its grainy, saturated visual style is reminiscent of Drugstore Cowboy and films from the 1970s, and the colorful but muted palette of the overall design is visually engaging and successfully comes across like FH’s memories are being watched.
But even more than this, it’s an intimate film that follows a young man lost in the world, adrift in drug abuse, and ultimately finds salvation. While much could be made about its potential as a religious (specifically Christian) metaphor, what Jesus’ Son does best is speak to viewers who have similarly found themselves lost in their lives, wondering where it’s all heading and what it’s all about.
If a character like FH—a drug addict, transient, and overall fuck-up in life—can find peace in the end, perhaps we all can. While we dive through our own personal disasters, financial crises, and relationship issues, it’s often difficult to discern the shore among the heavy chop. We all need forgiveness in life—from ourselves and from others—and we all hope to find our own personal salvation one day.
Jesus’ Son reminds us of our own trespasses, and reminds us that one day—maybe not tomorrow or next month, but in some hazy unknown future—we will all be absolved and saved from our own lives.