In director Spencer Susser’s dramedy Hesher there are a few things that work well and a few things that don’t. Sometimes it has moments that are electric; sometimes it has moments that are laugh out loud funny; then sometimes it has moments where you wonder if you are still watching the same movie.
It is difficult to accurately describe Hesher because it feels like even the film isn’t sure what it is at times. Black comedy? Drama? Ode to heavy metal? It feels like the movie is never sure which way it wants to go–or maybe it just doesn’t go far enough. The cast is unimpeachable and brings some heavy talent to the screen, but with the exception of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the characters don’t really have much personality.
Hesher is the catalyst to the lives of those on screen, but it is really a story of a young boy dealing with grief and loss while a shirtless head banging malcontent wreaks havoc on his life. The details sell that grief, but those same details are sometimes underdeveloped.
Gordon-Levitt eats the screen when he is on it playing the anarchistic heavy metal inspired (usually shirtless and chain smoking) title character. His interaction/attack on the lives of a grieving family are mesmerizing at times, but that is mostly credit to Gordon-Leavitt rather than the script, which seems to give up about two-thirds of the way through.
Hesher is a film filled some strong ideas, but that is all they are. Themes rise and fall, and the tone swings between dark comedy and bleak drama like a pendulum, with very little thought given to the damage done to the total product.
While the star of the movie is undoubtedly Gordon-Levitt who plays Hesher, the focus is T.J. Forney (Devin Brochu), a 13- year old boy trying to cope with the loss of his mother while dealing with the growing self-medicated disconnect of his father Paul (Rainn Wilson). Rather than dealing with the loss, both T.J. and Paul are slipping through the cracks of the world, and Paul’s mother Madeline (Piper Laurie) can only watch and share their grief by proxy.
T.J. is becoming more and more of an outcast and a misfit. He is withdrawn and the constant target of the local school bully. Then one day he vents his frustration and breaks the window of an abandoned house, unaware that an angry misanthropic squatter named Hesher is living there. The broken window draws attention and forces Hesher to flee, which makes T.J. the outcast’s newest target.
Hesher follows T.J. home and essentially moves in. Objections from the boy are met with a violent threat, and Paul is so disconnected that he just rolls with the new guest. Hesher soon makes himself at home and becomes entangled with the family to a degree.
Living his life by a heavy metal creed, Hesher is detached from the norms of society. As he integrates himself into the lives of the Forney family, he eventually tries to help them out in his own small way, but it usually makes things much worse. He can barely interact with regular people, and tends to make a spectacle of everything he does. He has no middle setting—it is either nothing or insanity at the drop of a hat.
When T.J. meets Nicole (Natalie Portman) she becomes the focus of his affections. Hesher intervenes to bring them closer, but he does so with the grace of an elephant in a glass factory. Everything he touches he makes worse, but he does so with a certain confidence and assurance that generally allows him to get away with it.
As Hesher continues to push into the Forney’s lives, he almost accidentally forces them to confront the past as their lives are tossed upside down by the weird, tattooed chain smoker that now shares in their evening dinners.
The idea of Hesher is solid, and it is backed by Gordon-Levitt’s incredible performance. He alone almost makes the film worth seeing. But the problem with Hesher is that it doesn’t seem to know exactly what it wants to be. It touches on several elements, but never embraces most of them.
The overall point of the movie is about dealing with loss. T.J. is grief stricken and is having trouble moving on. When they first meet, Hesher is incredibly mean to the kid, but by the end he is friendly and has acted as a catalyst to help both T.J. and his father move on. The problem is that sometimes the movie is a comedy, other times it is a bizarre drama. Sometimes those two genres go together well. This is not one of those times.
The film is deliberately vague at times, and while sometimes that is interesting, in general it gives the movie a lack of focus. For example, it is never clear when the movie is set. There is no modern tech apparent like a cell phone or a flat screen TV, and the cars are all from the 90s or before. It is meant to give the film a timeless look, but it is never really used in any real way so it just ends up being an idea that doesn’t go anywhere. In itself that isn’t really a problem. If a film wants to be set in the 90s for no real reason, so be it. It it is an example of the problem of multiple ideas without any real resolution or reasoning. Some of it can be justifiably chalked up as stylistic choices, but when you add it all together, it feels like there should be something more to Hesher that never properly gestates.
The biggest issue with Hesher is that rather than coming across as a film with deep meaning, it feels like two separate movies—one a dark comedy, the other a drama—forced together. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But the film still holds together just enough to keep your belief in it, right up until the end.
Without spoiling the ending, there is a tragic incident that occurs, which is treated so bizarrely as to make you wonder if you are watching the same movie. The entire film is based on dealing with crushing grief, and then another tragedy happens which makes everything alright. There is a point in there somewhere, but it is one that almost everyone will not appreciate because it contradicts every emotion in the movie up to that point.
After an hour and a half of buildup, the last ten minutes wrap everything up in an unbelievable way at a lightning fast pace, and leave the rest of the film feeling hollow as a result.
That Gordon-Levitt kid is ok
When Gordon-Levitt is on screen, Hesher is an entertaining film. His antics are almost worth the ticket price alone and he totally becomes the role. The entire cast of Hesher is actually among the best of an indie film so far this year. Academy Award winner Natalie Portman and Academy Award nominee Piper Laurie in what are essentially supporting roles, you know there is talent to be had. Wilson also turns in one of his best performances to date, and newcomer Devin Brochu is given an incredibly meaty and difficult role for a child actor, and does an good job with it.
But while everyone does their job well, both Wilson and Portman become secondary to both the plot and the movie. Their characters show a great deal of promise—with Portman as a struggling grocery store clerk who becomes the focus of T.J.’s lust, and Wilson’s role as a father and husband crushed by guilt and drowning in a sea of pharmaceuticals—but neither really shine. They exist to further the plot for T.J., and that’s about it.
Piper Laurie also has a few moments where her character has the potential to be something extraordinary, but for the most part she also just becomes a plot point. With the exception of Hesher and possibly T.J., none of the characters stand out. They are all well-acted, but it is an issue with the film lacking focus and missing opportunities.
Hesher has some solid moments that are entertaining, mostly due to the performance of Joseph Gordon-Levitt who is one day probably going to win an Oscar. When he is on screen—which is about one-third of the time—the movie is unpredictable and entertaining. When he’s not, it sinks into a melancholy funk. There are just too many undeveloped themes at work that never really gel. One moment it is a comedy, the next it is a fairly bleak drama, then the two are forced together for an ending that doesn’t work.
Half of Hesher is a good film. In fact it may even be a great film at times, band there are several really solid ideas, but that is all they are—ideas. They never properly develop, but you can sense that there could be more to it. Solid performances are paired with underdeveloped subplots, and themes of loss and grief are mixed with a variety of ideas that never coalesce.
Overall Hesher could have been a great movie, but it just runs out of steam and seems unsure of what to do with what it has. It isn’t a bad movie, just underdeveloped and underwhelming.