Joseph Gordon-Levitt has come a long way from his blank-eyed zombie look in lifeless early flops like Brick and Halloween H-20. But he remains unpredictable. One minute, he’s an appealing, fresh-faced romantic lead in 500 Days of Summer. Turn around and he’s covered with tattoos, wearing filthy rags, sporting long greasy hair and blabbing obscenities in the title role of a horror like Hesher. This repellant wack job is so off the wall it helps to read the production notes to learn what director-writer Stephen Susser had in mind for his feature-film debut: “Loud music. Pornography. Burning stuff to the ground. These are a few of Hesher’s favorite things in a dark fairy tale about an eccentric unhinged drifter who appears out of nowhere to help a struggling family deal with loss in the most unconventional ways when he unexpectedly takes up residence in their garage uninvited.” That doesn’t begin to describe how lurid and preposterous it is, but you get the picture.
Mr. Gordon-Levitt plays a freak who metabolizes out of nowhere like a heavy-metal Mary Poppins. It is never clear who he is or where he came from, but he does teach a few things about mourning to the dysfunctional 13-year-old T.J. (Devin Brochu), his catatonic father Paul (Rainn Wilson) who sleeps all day, and his doughy, dying grandmother (a ravaged Piper Laurie, of all people) who does the cooking and tells really boring stories over and over again. They have never recovered from the death of T.J.’s mother in a car crash, but for reasons only the filmmaker knows, the mood lifts when the gruesome Hesher walks through the house with green teeth and a body that looks like a flaming battleship, strips down to his frayed jock strap to do his laundry, and starts watching porno flicks on the VCR. He loves to fill the house with smoke, talk dirty, blow things up and shock the world out of complacency. The film’s major flaw is that it never bothers to explain why the family doesn’t call the cops. But hell, then you wouldn’t get the phony redemption scene, or the ridiculous renewal of hope scene.
Hesher is a violent, uncontrollable wild man who might easily hail from Borneo, but in time the script is hell-bent on revealing a sensitivity to the plight of others that is as bracing as electro-shock therapy. Natalie Portman makes an unlucky cameo appearance as a penniless supermarket cashier named Nicole who becomes T.J.’s only friend when she rescues him from a sadistic bully. Hesher wrecks everyone’s trust by throwing Nicole into bed (she likes tattoos) but redeems himself by showing up at a funeral stoned and dragging the corpse away on a motorbike. Don’t ask. The whole thing seems to have been directed by long-distance cell phone and edited with a rotary jigsaw. Mr. Gordon-Levitt, in the title role, never makes the lobotomized Hesher a coherent character. The only thing he doesn’t set fire to is the negative. The kid who plays T.J. looks like a miniature version of the already miniature Justin Bieber. Only the great Piper Laurie delivers dollar value. Otherwise, Hesher is to movies what graffiti is to a rotting fence.
Running time 105 minutes
Written by Spencer Susser and David Michod
Directed by Spencer Susser
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Natalie Portman, Rainn Wilson