There’s a shambling, episodic quality to Alison Maclean’s film
about amiable midwestern druggie FH (shorthand for the obscene
nickname the perpetually zonked-out fellow’s given by a
sometimes-hostile pal) who lurches from high to high, with
quite a few lows intervening between them of course, during
the feel-good early seventies. The engagingly ragged structure,
which shuffles the chronology and allows for secondary
characters to appear abruptly and vanish with equal suddenness,
reflects the fact that the script’s been cobbled together from
short stories in a collection by Denis Johnson, but doubtlessly
Maclean also intends it to reflect the protagonist’s aimless,
hazy existence. For the most part the technique works: it
draws us nicely into the perspective of FH himself (who links
the jumbled parts of the scenario together through his deadpan,
often spacy narration), mirroring the flashbacks that a drug
user might experience; and although Maclean occasionally gets
too artsy for the picture’s good and allows its last thirty
minutes to slide into an overly conventional mode, the overall
achievement is pretty high. “Jesus’ Son” is a worthy complement
to “Drugstore Cowboy,” Gus Van Sant’s great 1989 picture on
the same culture that FH inhabits. It’s not that film’s
equal, to be sure, but the fact that it can be mentioned in the
same breath is accomplishment enough.

What makes it work so well is Billy Crudup’s ingratiatingly
natural, likably unforced portrayal of FH. The role could
easily have invited the sort of exaggeration that would have
made the character an irritating bore, but Crudup plays it
with the same sort of laid-back, oddly sweet charm that marked
Matt Dillon’s turn in “Cowboy.” (It’s a pleasure to see the
young star return to form after his stilted, unconvincing
performance in Keith Gordon’s “Waking the Dead.”) We’re
introduced to FH as he’s hitch-hiking to Mexico in search of
his girlfriend Michelle (Samantha Morton), a high-strung,
volatile chick who’s left him for a southern fling with a
guy named John Smith (briefly limned by Will Patton). The
plot then shuffles back some years to show us how FH and
Michelle linked up, and how they managed to stay together
through some rough patches, including a pregnancy and frequent
cash troubles. Along the way episodes involving other
characters are inserted almost like revue sketches: one
teams FH with an explosive drug-and-drinking buddy played by
Denis Leary, and another–probably the most surrealistically
funny part of the picture–has him working in an emergency
room along with a goofy orderly named Georgie (Jack Black) when
a patient walks in sporting a hunting knife that’s been plunged
into his eye. The resultant treatment, and a subsequent
drive by FH and Georgie, are both ghoulishly hilarious and
curiously moving. The plot then lurches forward to where it
began, and FH reunites with Michelle, with tragic results.

Had “Jesus’ Son” ended here, it would have had considerable
power and resonance. But as the title (and bursts of ambiguous
religious imagery throughout the first eighty minutes) suggest,
this is ultimately a redemption story, and it follows FH
through rehab and into a job as a staff member at an Arizona
hospital for the elderly and disabled. It’s in this final
section that the picture becomes less and less imaginative
and persuasive. FH retains some of his initial oddity (his
fascination with a Mennonite couple is rather unsettling, and
one has to wonder whether it’s a mere hallucination), but
everything else is made too literal. Brief appearances
by well-known performers like Dennis Hopper and Holly Hunter
resemble the sort of cameo stunts that were commonplace in
epics of the 1950s and 1960s (remember “Around the World in
80 Days” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told”?) And while the
picture doesn’t get exactly heavy-handed, it finishes in far
less nimble a fashion that it started.

Nonetheless, those earlier eighty minutes, and Crudup’s
continuously effective performance, make “Jesus’ Son” a keeper.
Morton adds strong, compelling work as Michelle, and Black,
who stole every scene he could in “High Fidelity,” is equally
adept here. Even Leary, whose scowling presence is usually
nothing to rave about, is pretty impressive–helped, no
doubt, by the fact that he’s not around long.

As for Maclean, the New Zealander’s first American feature is
far superior to her earlier “Crush” (1992), and suggests that
her intervening work on NBC, HBO and Showtime has had a
positive effect. To be sure, the calculatedly complicated
structure of “Jesus’ Son,” with its sometimes confusing time
shifts, can seem precious, and the stray artsy touches
(the split screen shot showing both Leary and Crudup shooting
up, and the stab at ethereal beauty when Crudup and Black
stumble upon a drive-in theatre during a snowfall) seem more
than a trifle self-conscious. But on the whole she’s captured
the American background of the seventies remarkably well, and
she’s certainly drawn a stable of excellent performances from
her cast. Despite the occasional miscalculation and that
disappointing final half-hour, her picture is an estimable
piece of work.