The Curious Case of “Hesher”

Courtesy of Newmarket Films

It’s hard to know what to expect from “Hesher” with a tagline that reads, “Sometimes life gives you the finger and sometimes it gives you … Hesher.” The trailer features fires, heavy-metal music and shit breaking. Lots of it. Interesting, no?

In his first feature film — produced completely independently from major film studios and sponsored by small companies and actors — director Spencer Susser takes the somewhat tired premise of a family falling apart in the face of grief and loss and sets it on fire. Almost literally.

Hesher, a stoned 20-something metalhead, drops into TJ’s life with no explanation. He invites himself to live with TJ, his father and his grandmother, insinuating himself in their lives with about as much grace as a Molotov cocktail. In fact, his introduction in the film consists of him manhandling TJ and throwing what looks like a Molotov cocktail at a security officer. He then proceeds to stomp his way through their home and their lives.

If this is the part of the film when one expects him to start showing a softer side by taking TJ under his wing and helping the kid fight off bullies and deal with his grief, fixing his family in the process — all set to swelling, emotional music, of course — then one will be sorely disappointed. Hesher just doesn’t care. He watches TJ get his face stuffed into a urinal cake, then blows up a convertible and lets TJ take the blame.

Much of the movie’s strength lies with the actors’ performances. There isn’t too much dialogue, but this gives the actors the chance to be more expressive with their faces or body language.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the titular character with as much finesse as one can lend an anarchic pyromaniac who shouts “fuck you” to the world with everything he does — right down to the hand giving the middle finger tattooed on his back. It’s obvious that Gordon-Levitt had a lot of fun with Hesher, fully embodying the menace and crudeness of the character to often-amusing effect, like shimmying up a telephone pole in nothing but his tighty-whities at one point. One enjoyable detail Gordon-Levitt brings to the character would have to be the way he walks, with a stomping, heavy gait that speaks volumes about just how much Hesher cares about the world —which is to say, not at all.

As a character, Hesher has practically no redeeming qualities. He’s foul-mouthed and crude, and his relationship with TJ is menacing and anything but nurturing — a favorite action of his is to grab TJ by the throat — yet, Gordon-Levitt plays Hesher with depth, displaying glimpses of emotion with something as simple as a glance.

Devin Brochu gives a brilliant performance as TJ, becoming the kid who has just lost his mother, resents his father and barely tolerates life. He stammers and mumbles his way through his lines in a way that makes it almost painful to listen to him, if only because one sympathizes with the poor kid so much. Brochu’s performance could easily have become a one-dimensional character study of some pathetic kid the audience simply feels bad for in an indifferent “aw, poor kid,” kind of way. Fortunately, he plays TJ as a multi-faceted character, struggling with grief and loss and the utter unfairness that seems to be his life.

Rainn Wilson and Natalie Portman both have smaller roles but both of their performances are nevertheless beautiful. Wilson plays his character convincingly, managing to convey a father so stricken with depression he can’t even bring himself to change his clothes, much less be a parent. It’s both saddening and irritating to see how apathetic he is toward life now that his wife has died. Portman shines as the slightly nerdy salesclerk at her wit’s end who befriends TJ. In one scene, she gives an awkward, fumbling apology that is made all the more endearing because of its lack of finesse. Piper Laurie is as adorable as TJ’s senile grandmother.

“Hesher” is a film that you either love or hate. The pacing can seem a little slow and awkward and bumbling. The characters aren’t all that likeable if you think about it; in fact, they’re pretty off-putting. It’s a messy story, and the loose ends aren’t all tied up at the close.  Hesher just drops into the story with no explanation. His character doesn’t have a back story; the audience knows barely anything about him. Portman’s storyline with TJ and with Hesher remains unresolved by the end. When the credits roll, the audience still has questions.

People might not like this, but you know what? They can suck it. These are the qualities about “Hesher” that set it apart from other movies about dealing with grief and loss. It gives many movie conventions the middle finger — and it works. Because life doesn’t always resolve itself with neatly knotted ends. Life is messy. The enigmatic figure doesn’t always save the day. Sometimes life gives you the finger and the only thing you can do is to give it the finger back.

Rating: 4.5/5 Stars