I originally wrote this review in January of 2010 after seeing Hesher (directed by Spencer Susser, co-written by Susser and David Michod of the equally kickass Animal Kingdom) at Sundance.  Since then, it’s gotten a new cut, and opens today in these cities*.  I saw the new cut of the film a few weeks ago, and though I couldn’t isolate what exactly was different, I can tell you that I liked it even more, or at least, felt that much more justified in loving it the first time around.  It’s essentially the story of a family who experience a loss and start to lose themselves, wondering if life has no meaning.  Then a mysterious character named Hesher comes along and basically says, “F*CK IT, MAYBE LIFE HAS NO MEANING!” and lights everything on fire.  Seriously, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is so righteous in this movie, you guys.  One of the things I love about Hesher is that it’s finally an indie movie that isn’t so f*cking mannered. You see Paul Giamatti in a movie like Win-Win, and it’s a pretty well-made film, but everything about it is just so… expected.  You know it’s going to warm a smug film critic just like one of his conservative sweaters.  It’s exactly the kind of film you expect to see at Sundance, and has all the heart, middle-class ennui, and character drama that middle-aged progressives demand in a film they discuss over Chardonnay.  It’s not bad, it’s just godd*mn boring.  Hesher is a gleefully nihilistic cinematic middle finger that has Joseph Gordon-Levitt talking about old ladies “getting strangled with their dirty panties” and specifying between “dick f*cking” and “finger f*cking.”  It’s abrasive, it’s not nice, and your parents will probably hate it.  Just like heavy metal.  That’s part of why it feels so good.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a White-Snake Chorus

You know that one White Snake song, where it starts off kind of slow, and there’s all these gay synthesizers, and some guy’s singing about being “a heart in need of rescue?”  And the first time you heard it, you were just about to turn it off, but then all of a sudden, this thumpin’ chorus fades in and you just wanna jump up on the bar and start singin’ — HERE I GO AGAIN ON MY OOOOOWWWN — and you kick an old lady’s drink into her lap, and you’re still shouting, and the veins in your neck are all poppin’ out — GOIN’ DOWN THE ONLY ROOOOAAAD I’VE EVER KNOOOOOOWWWN — and it’s rocking you so hard, you pull your pants down and start waving your wiener around like a helicopter — LIKE A DRIFTER I WAS BOORN, TO WALK ALLOOOOOOWWWOOONE — but then the chorus ends, and it’s back to the gay synthesizers again?  But it’s almost like the gay synthesizer parts don’t even matter, because in the back of your mind you know that awesome chorus is coming up again any second now, so while the gay synthesizers play, you’re just waiting to get naked and light the bar on fire?  And it’s almost unfair to criticize the gay synthesizer parts, because without them the chorus wouldn’t make you want to run up to the overpass and flash your tits at oncoming traffic nearly as much, and the anticipation is half the fun?  Yeah.  So Hesher.  It’s, uh… it’s kind of like that.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the chorus.  Sporting ratty hair, a goatee, and that heavy-footed lumber common to smirking burnouts, he plays Hesher, which may or may not be his actual name, an awesomely nihilistic a-holey older brother type who’s like Wayne from Wonder Years meets Tyler Durden meets every stoner metalhead you knew in high school.  I never really cared about Joseph Gordon-Levitt one way or another before, but this character is one of my favorites of all time (I’ve scrutinized this bit of hyperbole and I promise it’s true).  Every time he’s on screen, it’s project mayhem all over again.  (*shaves cat, kicks dog into pool, lights underwear on fire*)

The rest of the movie concerns a family dealing with the loss of the mother.  Rainn Wilson plays the father, who’s decided to dope himself up and check out of life, sweatpants style, while pre-teen Devin Brochu, our protagonist, alternates between acting out and being sullen and emo, and grandma Piper Laurie just tries to make sure everyone’s clothed and fed.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say the family drama about loss was all gay synthesizer to my ears — it’s clearly a personal story and at times touching — but I’m not exactly excited to watch a kid cry about his dead mother either, or see a married couple in a grief-counseling group discuss their murdered daughter. Luckily, any time things start to get too heavy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt shows up to f*ck sh*t up and tell Natalie Portman about the time he was trying to fingerbang four chicks at the same time in his van.  Yes, that happened.  It was so awesome I almost made metal fingers in the theater.

Director Spencer Susser seems to be conscious of this dynamic, and perhaps his greatest credit is that he never overplays his hand.  Just when you think he’s going to soften up Hesher and turn him into a cuddly snugglewumpus who’ll beat up your enemies and help out around the house, Hesher does something even more dickish and f*cked up.  He is pure anarchy, the ultimate Wild Card.  And you can’t go counting on the Wild Card, that’s why he’s the Wild Card.

The plot has some developments you might call predictable, but even the stuff you expect to happen, it happens with someone getting medieval with some pruning shears — such that at least the method, if not the event is still surprising.  It’s Hesher‘s willingness to go there that makes it fun to watch, even if you weren’t that into the story.  In so many words, it’s f*cking metal.

Like a White Snake song, it’s hard to grade.  How harshly can I judge the gay synth parts when the chorus brought me such joy?  Is it fair to say with my brain that it’s not a “good song” when in my heart I just want play it over and over again and rock the f*ck out?  I don’t know if Hesher was the best movie I saw this week, but it’s definitely the one I’d be most excited to see again.

Grade: B+ [Edit: Upon Second Viewing: A]

Additional Notes:

  • New Market bought the distribution rights for “low seven figures”, so hopefully it’ll see a theatrical release that puts it into markets outside of New York and L.A.
  • *metal fingers*

*Opening today in:

Phoenix, Berkeley, Hollywood, Palm Springs, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Irvine, Santa Monica, Pasadena, San Jose, Denver, Hartford, New Haven, Washington DC, Atlanta, Sandy Springs (GA), Boise, Chicago, Evanston, Lawrence (KS), Cambridge MA, Boston, Ann Arbor, Waltham MA, Birmingham MI, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Albuquerque, Las Vegas, New York, Portland, Eugene OR, Corvallis OR, Neshaminy PA, Philadelphia, Providence, Austin, Dallas, Bellevue, Seattle, and Spokane.