Jesus' Son

USA/Canada 1999

Reviewed by Danny Leigh


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Iowa City, the early 70s. Fuckhead, or FH, a drug addict in his early twenties, is involved in a car crash while hitchhiking. He returns to his apartment and is visited by his ex-girlfriend Michelle. He then reminisces about his life so far, starting with his first meeting with Michelle at a party. Ignoring the attentions of her boyfriend McInnes, Michelle seduces Fuckhead. Months after the party, the two move in together and nurture their heroin habits. McInnes is shot by one of his house mates; he's driven to hospital by Fuckhead, but dies on the way.

Fuckhead and Michelle move into a cheap hotel. Fuckhead agrees to help Wayne, an alcoholic, strip a derelict house for salvage. Having made $40, the two men buy heroin. That evening, both overdose: Wayne dies, but Fuckhead is revived by Michelle. Fuckhead gets a job at a hospital, where he and his colleague Georgie steal various medication; later, Georgie saves a patient's life. Tripping, Fuckhead and Georgie drive into the country. When Fuckhead returns home, Michelle tells him she is pregnant. The baby is aborted. Michelle leaves Fuckhead for another man.

Following his car crash, Fuckhead gets back together with Michelle. After arguing with Fuckhead, Michelle dies from an overdose. Grief-stricken, Fuckhead overdoses himself, and is sent to a rehab clinic. Five months later, he is working at a hospice in Arizona; there, he finds peace among his terminally ill charges.


For a director as seemingly talented as Alison Maclean, the seven years since her last feature - the taut, unsettling Crush (1992) - must have been hard to endure. She spent some of the time working in US television, on such series as Homicide Life on the Street and Sex and the City. But Jesus' Son shows how much she relishes her return to cinema. With its exquisitely muted colours, its aura of woozy narcosis and its defiantly fractured narrative, Jesus' Son pointedly resembles a compendium of things you're not allowed to do on mainstream television. And if her main aim was to get as far as possible from network strictures, what better source material could she have than Denis Johnson's 1992 collection of short stories, addled, disjointed tales about a young herion addict and his drifter friends?

Yet fitfully faithful as Maclean and screenwriters Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia and Oren Moverman are to Johnson's smacked-out lyricism, it emerges here as something of a mixed blessing. On paper Johnson's fleeting insights are immaculate, peppering a bottomless, opiate, first-person fugue. And the temptation to have Billy Crudup's drug addict Fuckhead simply recite chunks of interior monologue has not been resisted. But while Crudup's recitations sound great, they often leave the film looking uncomfortably like an illustrated narration. The sense of displacement is almost too palpable. Maclean can't seem to make up her mind between honouring the skewed nature of Johnson's vignettes - by punctuating each segment with title cards - and trying to mould them into a coherent, viewer-friendly narrative. Take, for instance, the key character of Michelle. Despite Samantha Morton's fine, funky performance she seems an arbitrary and strangely hollow figure. It quickly becomes clear that her role is a composite of Johnson's numerous anonymous female characters, one designed to bind several threads into a conventional storyline.

Yet this hesitancy hardly negates the otherwise astute and idiosyncratic charms of Jesus' Son. Maclean's camera perfectly captures a mood of euphoric listlessness which is at once a homage to Johnson and a tribute to her and her team's sensitivities. If the scriptwriting mechanics of unifying Johnson's yarns prove troublesome, the potentially jarring disparities in tone are handled with greater ease. The film segues seamlessly from absurdist comedy (Crudup blankly watching a naked middle-aged woman paragliding), to documentary detail (Denis Leary's broken alcoholic Wayne mopping up a spilt scotch, then sucking on the napkin) to understated tragedy (his subsequent death from an OD). In a medium increasingly confused by the idea of pushing more than one emotional button at once, Maclean's fluency is startling, and her images achieve a cracked, off-kilter kind of beauty.

Her handling of heroin, though indulgent in terms of screen time, is otherwise strictly matter-of-fact. Rather than the ostentatious fetishism of drugs chic in, say, Trainspotting or Drugstore Cowboy, smack here is as regular and uneventful an activity as eating. People get high; sometimes they die. This uncondescending fatalism means that, when a doped-up Fuckhead wanders through a drive-in showing the 1962 horror film Carnival of Souls convinced he's actually in a vast, sprawling cemetery, the effect is captivating.

All of which is enhanced by the accomplishment of the performances. Billy Crudup is a dazed, ruined presence whose poise gives the project its anguished heart. The supporting turns - particularly Morton, Leary and the inspired Jack Black - are equally impressive. The sublime interplay between Black and Crudup in the darkly comic segment 'Emergency', set in a blood-soaked casualty ward ("What am I gonna do about these fuckin' shoes, man? Listen to how they squish..."), is just one memorable scene in a film of many. Moments such as these leave you hoping Maclean doesn't have to wait another seven years for her next big-screen outing.


Alison Maclean
Elizabeth Cuthrell
Lydia Dean Pilcher
David Urrutia
Elizabeth Cuthrell
David Urrutia
Oren Moverman
Based on the book by
Denis Johnson
Director of Photography
Adam Kimmel
Geraldine Peroni
Stuart Levy
Production Designer
David Doernberg
Joe Henry
©Jesus' Son Financing, L.P.
Production Companies
Alliance Atlantis and Lions Gate Films present an Evenstar Films production
Executive Producer
Steven Tuttleman
Margot Bridger
Associate Producer
Oren Moverman
Production Supervisor
George Paaswell
Production Co-ordinators
Benjamin Goldberg
Arizona Crew:
Antonio Sánchez
Unit Production Manager
Arizona Crew:
Carlos Moore
Location Managers
Joe Kelly
Arizona Crew:
Norma Kraus
Post-production Supervisors
George Paaswell
Jasmine Kosovic
2nd Unit Director
Lydia Dean Pilcher
Assistant Directors
Robert Warren
Dylan Hopkins
Arizona Crew:
Eric Tignini
Script Supervisor
Sonya Klimuk
Laura Rosenthal
Ali Farrell
Philadelphia Locations:
Mike Lemon Casting
Diane Heery
Camera Operator
Alicia Weber
Visual Effects
Jeffrey Cox
Digital Effects/Animation
Blue Sky Studios Inc
Rain and Snow Effects
John Burzichelli
Hill Studios
Art Director
Andrea Stanley
Set Decorator
Geri Radin
Costume Designer
Kasia Walicka Maimone
Wardrobe Supervisor
Natalya Khorover
Key Make-up Artist
Nicki Ledermann
Key Hairstylist
Gianna Sparacino
Title Design
János Pilenyi
Cineric Inc
Original Score Musicians
Jennifer Condos
Curt Bisquera
Gregg Arreguin
Jamie Muhoberac
Brian Schwartz
Tin Drum Session Musicians
Eliot Bailen
Jennifer Green
Ragnhildur PĂ©tursdóttir
J. Russo
Gerald Beal
Dan Goebel
Hanna Tennen
Music Supervisor
Randall Poster
Music Co-ordinator
Christopher S. Parker
Music Editor
Annette Kudrak
Music Mixing Engineer
Rick Will
Additional Music Production
Max Lichtenstein
Music Consultant
Denis Johnson
"Surf Buggy" - Dick Dale & His Del-Tones; "Sweet Pea" - Tommy Roe; "Mute", "Big Pill" - Camphor; "Yes, I'm Ready" - Barbara Mason; "The Iowa Waltz" - Greg Brown; "Indian Reservation (The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian)" - Paul Revere and The Raiders; "Last Date" - Floyd Cramer; "Lover's Holiday" - Peggy Scott, Jo Jo Benson; "(Is Anybody Going to) San Antone?" - Doug Sahm; "She's a Jar" - Wilco; "The Ballad of the Green Beret" - Barry Sadler; "Ooby Dooby", "Airline to Heaven" - Wilco; "Main Title Theme (Billy)" - Bob Dylan; "Hang On Sloopy" - The McCoys; "The Love You Save" - Joseph Accrington; "Cowgirl in the Sand" - Neil Young; "Soul Dressing" - Booker T. and the M.G.s; "The Family That Prays", "Satan Is Real" - The Louvin Brothers; "Unchain My Heart" - Joe Henry; "Farther Along" - Christine Mourad; "Misty Blue" - Dorothy Moore; "The Circular Hallway" - Gerald Beal, Hanna Tennen, Eliot Bailen; "Sweet Desire" - The Kendalls
Production Sound Mixers
John Gooch
Arizona Crew:
Michael Cottrell
Re-recording Mixer
Reilly Steele
Planet 10 Post Co-ordinator
Danielle Capawanna
Supervising Sound Editor
Warren Shaw
Dialogue Editors
Dan Korintus
Sylvia Menno
Rick Freeman
Sound Effects Editors
Paul P. Soucek
William Sweeney
David Boulton
Bobby Johanson
Kenton Jakub
Brian Vancho
Joe Dohner
Jeffrey Stern
Narcotics Consultant
James Moffit
Stunt Co-ordinator
Douglas Crosby
Film Extract
Carnival of Souls (1962)
Billy Crudup
Samantha Morton
Denis Leary
Jack Black
Will Patton
John Smith
Greg Germann
Doctor Shanis
Holly Hunter
Dennis Hopper
Robert Michael Kelly
Torben Brooks
car crash driver
Dierdre Lewis
driver's wife
Jimmy Moffit
car crash doctor
Antoinette Lavecchia
dead man's wife
Steve Buck
Ben Shenkman
Scott Oster
Brooke Shive
Mark Webber
Jack Hotel
John Ventimiglia
Jesse Weaver Jr
Mike Shannon
Todd Berry
Bill Thompson
college kids
Elizabeth Cuthrell
diner waitress
Joanne Bradley
Evita Sobel
Ronald Croy
big guy in fight
Yvette Mercedes
E.R. nurse
Denis Johnson
Terrance Weber
Christine Mourad
ICU nurse
John Clement
medical assistant
Katie Rimmer
ICU nurse 2
Carol Florence
abortion clinic nurse
Ron Van Lieu
Alan Davidson
William Salera
man in laundromat
Miranda July
black-eyed nurse
Omar Koury
E.R. doctor
Lee Golden
Boris McGiver
Susanne Case-Sulby
Beverly Home head nurse
Kevin Carroll
Michael Bove
Clista Townsend
David Tuttleman
AA people
Rebecca Kimball
Mennonite woman
David Urrutia
Mennonite husband
Christine Cowin
young nurse
Alliance Releasing (UK)
9,695 feet
107 minutes 44 seconds
Dolby Digital
Colour by
Super 35 [2.35:1]
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011