Hesher is one of those movies you want to like, because it stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Natalie Portman and it’s off-balanced. Unfortunately it doesn’t know what it wants to be though, and with a main character as unlikable as fingernails on a chalkboard, I found it difficult to take. Hesher screened this week at Austin’s SXSW film fest, and after watching it I know two things: Gordon-Levitt has amazing range, and Hesher is a drama in that it meanders for about two hours and then ends with an unsatisfying whimper.
Hesher, named after the long-haired, psychotic title character played by Gordon-Levitt, started garnering buzz a few months ago when an unofficial trailer was released online. Though this film premiered over a year ago at the Sundance Film Festival, we haven’t heard much from it until this year’s awards season brought both Gordon-Levitt and Portman into the spotlight. The critical acclaim that catapulted them into the limelight for respective films Inception and Black Swan must have inspired the forces behind this film, because suddenly Hesher buzz was everywhere, and the film was given a theatrical release date this April.
Hesher is unlikable. An odd loner with long-hair and lots of homemade tats and no sense of honor or respect for anything, he bullies his way into the life of a grieving family. The young boy, T.J. (Devin Brochu), who has recently lost his mother, develops a strange relationship with Hesher. Mostly hate and fear. Portman plays a mousy and unattractive grocery store employee that T.J. has a crush on. Portman’s character, Nicole, shows the only sense of honor and courage in the whole film.
After T.J. throws a rock through the window of an empty home under construction, Hesher appears and roughs him up. That’s the start of even more troubles for the much-bullied boy. T.J. has lost his mother in a car accident, and his father has retreated into depression and prescription drugs, and now this violent psycho has fixated on him. Hesher drives around in his beat-up old black van, and it becomes like the specter of death that seems to hover just over T.J.’s shoulder. Hesher follows T.J. home and then moves in, violently forcing the little boy to take him into his home and his life.
Events keep spiraling down into more tragedy as the film progresses. Hesher, as a character, is offensive and brutal. He is violent and abrupt, and clearly psychotic. He has rage issues, and that’s just the beginning. He’s homeless and seems, most of the time, without remorse.
The film is difficult to watch sometimes due to the violence of Hesher’s character against T.J. Hesher not only knocks T.J. around, but strangles him and runs him over with his van. I found this disturbing, and I don’t think it was needed as far as the story was concerned. Hesher had already been established as a dangerous violent character, and the uneasy moments of violence against the boy felt gratuitous.
Writer/director Spencer Susser no doubt wrote the story to deal with his own issues and experiences with loss, so it’s no surprise that there are some intense emotions in this story, and some moments that might make the audience uncomfortable. While the Hesher character is intriguing and intense, I think Susser tried too hard to establish him as a character who lives without the laws of society. He ended up being a despicable character that, instead of acting as a catalyst for this grieving family’s healing, becomes a caricature.
Despite my personal distaste for the Hesher character, Gordon-Levitt nailed the role as the emotionally broken psychopath. Portman proves herself again as a vulnerable grocery store clerk who just wants to do the right thing. Rainn Wilson plays T.J.’s neglectful father in a surprisingly touching performance. No sign of Wilson’s typical quirkiness is detected. And I should mention the delicate performance by Piper Laurie as T.J.’s ailing grandmother.
All in all, despite some great performances, Hesher left me wishing there was more to it.