Genre: Comedy, Drama
Director: Spencer Susser
Screenwriters: Spencer Susser, David Michôd
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Devin Brochu, Natalie Portman
For a tantalizing while, Hesher takes aim at empowerment clichés: shrimpy, bullied protagonist is inspired to stand up for himself by grandpa, or girl, or older pal. I was reminded, more than anything else, of the original Swedish version of Let the Right One In, in which a friendship with a twelve year-old vampire reveals the violent darkness in a young boy’s heart. Ultimately, Spencer Susser’s debut feature – co-written with Animal Kingdom’s David Michod – bails on this notion, opting for an upbeat, heart-tugging ending. But it’s still nice to see a movie that’s even a little bit cynical about these things.
Hesher also features an epic lead performance that would have redeemed the film on its own. As the titular metalhead, Joseph Gordon-Levitt stalks and growls his way across the screen, exuding a blithe, casual menace that is the diametric opposite of his insecure hipster amiability in (500) Days of Summer, and maybe 90 degrees away from his scrappy toughness in Brick.
Hesher is a grungy, tattooed, unemployed criminal who swoops in to scare the shit out of 11 year-old TJ (Devin Brochu), who is reeling from the death of his mother in a car wreck. After the frustrated and despondent TJ shatters a window in his hideout, Hesher shows up at the house TJ occupies with his halfway-catatonic dad (Rainn Wilson) and grandma (Piper Laurie), and simply moves in without so much as a word. He then proceeds to wreak all manner of physical and emotional havoc, taking an interest in TJ’s friendship with a pretty grocery clerk (Natalie Portman), and the bully who is intent on making TJ’s life hell.
As you might expect, Hesher, who has no fear, no social filter, and no compunctions about setting fire to cars and trashing backyards, will eventually teach TJ to stand up for himself and get past the loss of his mother. But – and this is the film’s minor stroke of genius – he is hardly a mentor or a friend. He may help TJ retaliate against his bully, but might also get him arrested in the process. If he gets angry, he might pin the pre-teen boy to the wall by the throat, or deck his middle-aged father. His m.o. is violence and intimidation. His companionship may be liberating, but it is not safe.
The film is most exciting when we are most uneasy about the relationship between Hesher and TJ. There is a thrilling climactic scene when it seems like that relationship may have turned into a case of empowerment gone wrong, the previously timid TJ suddenly willing to do much more than merely stand up for himself, and turning on Hesher in the process. Then the movie backpedals with a positive, admittedly stirring conclusion that works as intended – but surgically removes all the ambiguity that preceded it.
Gordon-Levitt has the hardest job here. Hesher begins the film as a complete enigma, more of a force than a character; we briefly entertain the possibility that he is all in TJ’s head, like Tyler Durden, or evil Michael Cera in Youth in Revolt. Eventually it becomes clear that he is in fact a human being, albeit one with an inscrutable history (he has a bottomless well of crude, metaphorical stories drawn from alleged life experience). Gordon-Levitt conveys Hesher’s humanity with a glance or a subtle shift in body language that momentarily peels back the tough guy facade. At the end, the character gives his demented version of an inspirational monologue, and what could have been ludicrous becomes improbably touching.
What I wanted, I suppose, is a fundamentally harder-hearted film – in my ideal version of Hesher, the title character goes away and does not return for what Susser probably considers the pivotal scene. What we get is something a bit more conventional, a bit less brave – but still fascinating in its shaggy, offbeat way.
— Eugene Novikov