Hesher employs dark, brooding characters to detail tragedy in suburbia with minute accomplishment.
Characters arrive, depart, things get broken or destroyed as wide-eyed disasters in a story that cares as much about nothing as co-writer/director Spencer Susser does in making a point. It is one thing to side step convention, break the Hollywood mold of formulaic setups, payoffs and navigate tough subjects with new heroes and villains, but go too far and the result is discouraging, ineffective and just plain boring. From the beginning of the film, we’re never quite sure who the main character is and by the time we figure it out we’ve spent too much time following erratic, explosive behavior to make a lasting connection with the people making mischief. Note to filmmaker, if your characters do not care to change and you do not care to give them a reason to change, you’re not making a movie you’re making a document of a series of events about a handful of dysfunctional people who bop and poke around just long enough to be forgettable.
Spencer Susser is an American film director and screenwriter perhaps most notable for his connection with the Australian filmmaking collective Blue-Tongue Films. He first appeared on the radar with his short film I Love Sarah Jane after a string of video and short subject projects. Hesher is his feature film debut. Susser co-wrote the film with Animal Kingdom writer-director David Michod, based in part on another script of the same name but with a completely different story and characters. It’s difficult to know what to make of first time directors, especially when their body of work is so limited. Sometimes filmmakers go on to bigger and better films, say in the case of Jon Favreau, following his well received debut feature film Made in 2001 with a handful of t.v movies before Iron man sent him to the top of the Hollywood A-list. Sometimes filmmakers fall to the way side and fail to regain the momentum from their debut. Richard Kelly’s film Donnie Darko stunned critics when it appeared in 2001 even though it was only after an underground following that the film registered with audiences. Yet Kelly could not get back to that success and hasn’t been able to catch the attention of critics or audiences since.
Rainn Wilson is given so little to do that he is almost inconsequential in this movie. His portrayal of a grieving father is singular and shallow, one pained scruffy expression that fuels the majority of his scenes with his on-screen son Devin Brochu (T.J) who fares well for his age and the fact that he is in nearly every scene. Brochu is effective as a young boy caught up in tragedy, confused, conflicted; it would have been interesting to see what he did with a better script. It is not that Joseph Gordon-Levitt isn’t interesting to watch as the loose cannon Hesher, both convincing and at times funny, it is just that he carries the weight of ticking time bomb with a short fuse too far and for too long. Levitt takes the character head on like a bull charging through every scene, no time for back story, no time to see the confused boy inside the man destroying the world that he so desperately wants to be a part of. That is where the script fails at the most basic level in providing a moment or two where we might even like these damaged people. Natalie Portman staggers through the story as the offbeat love interest, somewhere between street-walker with a heart of gold and opportunist prostitute looking for her next meal ticket; she is nearly unrecognizable from her more successful roles in films like The Professional and Black Swan (the later of which I reviewed here). After all is said and done, Susser never quite knows what to do with the talent and that is not only shameful but inexcusable.
You have to want to sit through this movie. You have to know the filmmaker or someone on the production to sit through this movie. You have to really like these actors in the way people get obsessed with watching everything their favorite celebrity has ever been in, including peddling chicken for the colonel or swapping motorcycles and leather jacket icons for life insurance, to sit through this movie. And you have to accept the fact that you’re not going to like these characters no matter how much you could see yourself in them from time to time – destructive, not a care in the world, happy to be alone and eager to break things, set fires and throw makeshift bombs at people who have the balls to write you a parking ticket. This is the movie you hope comes with other movies, happier films, a good comedy or animated feature to make you smile and laugh and to bring you back to reality because no matter how bleak your world is you have to know there is something you can hold on to. It’s too easy to lose grasp of the stuff that keeps you around and it’s the railings on the world that prevents you from falling into the place you don’t come back from. Reality is celebrating nothing, having breakfast for dinner, cake and ice cream with your favorite television personality, laughing when you fall down, crying just to let it out. The reason we get up in the morning is because we’re putting distance between us and that dark hole in the ground. Otherwise it’s just too hard to keep on keeping on and movies that don’t operate according to a balanced world of change and development, of good and bad with a clear and distinct ‘character arc’ aren’t movies they’re ideas or something all together different.
Hesher might have succeeded had Susser decided exactly who the film was supposed to be about. He could have benefited from looking into how other dark films got it right. Love Liza with Phillip Seymour Hoffman is the story of a man facing the suicide note his wife left behind and the rest of his life. It’s about how he gets there by trying things out, good and bad, successes and failures. We laugh with Hoffman’s sad sack misanthrope because he falls down trying and looks a lot like us in the process. Kevin Spacey played the every man in American Beauty that is so far down on his luck he could tie his shoes and play hand ball against the curb at the same time. Spacey’s middle-aged bumbling executive stumbles around trying, loses sight of what matters and only finds it through laughter and tears. These stories are genuine and trust worthy. We know these characters because like them, we need something to hold on to in order to get up every day and tomorrow. Dark, emotionally complex, funny and sad at the same time, these films operate in the median where true drama not only functions but excels. Drama is the intersection where people meet, connect, spend time together, separate, and part ways forever. This is the place where films about characters, relationships and the consequences of our lives serve to remind us of who we are and why we care about one another. Without this connection, a film like Hesher leaves the way it came in, airy and indistinct and replaced by the next film that comes along with characters that we can care about.