Joseph Gordon-Levitt has been building a name for himself as a dynamic, charismatic actor since 2005’s Brick. But in his latest role, Hesher, Gordon-Levitt goes deeper down the rabbit hole than ever before, playing a loathsome, repulsive character well enough for us to love him. It’s a film about grief and anger, but it illustrates how most of us refuse to show those emotions, and Gordon-Levitt’s character has the wonderfully cathartic ability to draw us out of it. The result is both heartwarming and vulgar.
T.J. is a kid who feels alone in the world following the death of his mother and the retreat his father takes into solitude. He responds during a moment of anger by throwing a rock through a window on a construction site. After all, he needed to vent. Unfortunately, someone was squatting in that building, and now with the attention drawn to it by the sound of shattered glass, that homeless man is in need of lodging. Under threat of death and torture, T.J. lets him move in.
This is Hesher, a man who hangs around in his very dirty underwear, who modifies their cable service to allow porn to be on all day, who blows things up and says sexually graphic things at the dinner table. Hesher is pure, unadulterated id, the manifestation of base desires, and a man with no inhibitions whatsoever. He befriends T.J., in his way, and plays a vital role in the lives of this family.
There is also Nicole, played by Academy Award winner Natalie Portman, who also serves as producer on this film. Nicole steps in to save T.J. from getting beat up by a classmate one afternoon, and then begins to take a similar interest in him, protecting him as she’s able from the pure vice of Hesher.
In many ways, Hesher is not all that original, even though it seems so. I’m not knocking it – if I dismissed every film that lacked originality, I would have nothing good to watch. But Hesher, in particular, exists in a strange tradition alongside the Renoir masterpiece Boudu Saved From Drowning and Pasolini’s Teorema. In these films, as in others, a stranger comes to live with a family, and through his anarchic, chaotic life, he radically changes the family, at first for the worse, then later for the better.
Here he encounters a family drowning in it’s own grief and through his interaction with T.J., through his friendship with the grandmother (Piper Laurie) and the way he pushes T.J.’s father, Rainn Wilson, he breaks them all out of their funk. Some folks find themselves unable to deal with their grief because we are taught to be strong, to not cry, to move on. But moving on is so difficult, when the person we have lost was such a crucial part of our lives.
The Hesher sentiment is the simple two word expression that changes everything: “Fuck it.” It is vulgar, yes, but it has a striking purity to it. Forget about what society says you are supposed to be, and just be you. Deal with your grief in your way. If you want to take your grandmother’s casket out and go on one last walk with her, you do it, damnit! You cry, you scream, you destroy things, because that is how you feel. And yeah, Hesher’s anarchy is not always feasible long term, but sometimes we need a little chaos to remind us that the world is in flux and out of our control, as much as we’d like to think otherwise.
Hesher comes close to greatness: It’s gifted by a brilliant script from Spencer Susser (who also directed) and David Michod (the man behind last year’s inimitable Australian gangster flick Animal Kingdom) and has a deeply profound humanism to it. Hesher himself is easily the most watchable character, and though his actions we understand more of the others. The kid peaks only during moments of intense emotion; during the rest of the film he’s rather unremarkable. But then again, he’s there when it counts.
As we go about our lives, aiming towards that impossible demon of normalcy, perhaps we, too, retreat into ourselves. It sucks, and it hurts and it’s damn difficult to let others see us in pain, but Hesher, and Boudu, remind us that we need to cut loose sometimes. Sometimes we need to bare our soul in front of everyone. Sometimes we just need to say fuck it.