Jesus' Son [1999]

Genre: Drama
Fans of the short stories in Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son will wonder how anyone could film a book so beautifully, radiantly, defiantly strange. The good news is that Alison Maclean's film version is more than just faithful to the book's spirit: It's the closest thing to a visual equivalent of Johnson's visionary prose. As a series of vignettes in the life of an unnamed Midwestern junkie-slash-holy fool, the stories are linked more through imagery than through anything so linear as a plot. Maclean preserves this episodic structure but adds just enough narrative glue to make the whole thing hang together as a film. (And wisely so; if she hadn't, there'd have been no role at all for Samantha Morton, brilliant here as Michelle, the narrator's girlfriend.) With a hero called Fuckhead, you know this isn't going to be entertainment for the whole family, and some of the scenes of drug use and associated gore are grim indeed. But the movie looks just right, and some of its images are so beautiful it hurts: old movies playing in an empty drive-in, snow swirling all around; a naked woman parasailing through the sky with her long red hair streaming behind.Maclean also coaxes wonderful performances from a dream-indie cast, including Morton, the magnetic Billy Crudup as Fuckhead, Dennis Hopper, Holly Hunter, an uncharacteristically understated Denis Leary, and even, in a gruesome cameo, Denis Johnson himself. (Hint: Look for the knife. Then look away quickly.) Once again, Jack Black hijacks every frame in which he appears, and his turn as a pill-popping orderly gives new meaning to the phrase "I save lives." Things drag a little during the last half-hour, but squirm not: Following Fuckhead through rehab and beyond, the book's closing scenes are genuinely redemptive without hitting the audience over the head with a "lesson" of any kind. Jesus' Son is Maclean's first feature film since 1992's Crush; let's hope she won't make us wait as long before the next fix. --Mary Park

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