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'Jesus' Son' Divinely Done

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 7, 2000


    'Jesus' Son' Billy Crudup leads a superb cast in "Jesus' Son." (Lions Gate)
Q: What kind of actor does it take to pull off a line like, "Ah, this sudden crispness, this beautiful chill, the tang of everything stabbing me!" and not make it sound as if he's reading from the Rod McKuen songbook?

A: A very, very brave one.

Billy Crudup is such an actor. As the hero of Alison Maclean's "Jesus' Son," a lyrical hallucination of a film about a junkie's voyage from damnation to self-discovery, Crudup gives a performance that is by turns scary, heartbreaking, grotesque and funny as hell. In Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia and Oren Moverman's poetic adaptation of Denis Johnson's acclaimed collection of semi-autobiographical short stories, Crudup stars as a man known only by a vulgar nickname we'll euphemistically call "Frickhead."

As the tale begins, FH is a sweet-natured twentysomething slacker whose worst vices are cigarettes and beer. Actually, that's not true – when "Jesus' Son" starts, FH, who is also the movie's unreliable narrator, has already fallen off the wagon, but just a few minutes into his winding oral history he stops, backtracks, then starts again (several times in fact) before finding his rhythm.

His head turned by a pretty heroin addict named Michelle (Samantha Morton), it doesn't take FH long to realize he likes the high, too. Soon, the two are shacking and shooting up in a series of grimy fleabags. They fight, they make up, she saves him from an overdose and gets pregnant. Through it all, FH drifts past a succession of eccentric but totally believable social outcasts: Wayne (Denis Leary), a divorced dope fiend and alcoholic who harvests his own home for scrap metal; Georgie (Jack Black), a pill-popping hospital orderly; Bill (Dennis Hopper), a recovering drunk with two rather gruesome bullet holes in his head; and Mira (Holly Hunter), a partially paralyzed woman he meets at an AA meeting.

Filled with beautiful imagery bordering on the surreal – a naked woman gliding through the sky on some sort of parasail, a fully conscious man with a hunting knife sticking out of his eye socket, a litter of premature rabbits delivered in the middle of a highway, a Mennonite couple in the Arizona desert – "Jesus' Son" is neither a preachy tale of rehab nor a harrowing drug drama, although its voice is at times inflected with elements of each.

More than anything, "Jesus' Son" (which takes its name from a line in Lou Reed's song, "Heroin") is a story of spiritual awakening and the often serendipitous, if not downright blessed, way many of us arrive at a sense of belonging. Guided by director Maclean's taste for the wry, her eye for finding beauty in squalor and her allergic reaction to all things sentimental – and with its rock-solid cast of actor's actors – "Jesus' Son" manages to carry off the corniest thing imaginable: turning a cynic into a believer.

JESUS' SON (R, 110 minutes) – Contains obscenity, sex, nudity, drug use and surreal physical injury.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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