Director    Spencer Susser
Starring    Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Natalie Portman, Rainn Wilson, Devin Brochu, Piper Laurie, Brendan Hill, John Carroll Lynch
Release    13 MAY 2011 (US) 13 FEB (DVD) (UK)    Certificate 15
4 stars


5th March 2012

Earlier this year on one of my weekly trips to Amazon to buy DVDs I definitely don't need, I stumbled across a film that I've been waiting to hit UK cinemas for years now. Spencer Sussman's black comedy Hesher was the talk of the festival circuit in 2010, but now finds itself ungamely shunted onto DVD shelves without so much as an apologetic press release. No film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Oscar-winner Natalie Portman (star of "The Black Swan" according to the DVD cover) and Rainn Wilson deserves such a fate: Hesher deserves more than one of Matt's DVD round-ups ("I haven't seen it, but...") so here's my review in full.

Having seen it, I can perhaps understand how difficult it'd be to categorise Hesher. It refuses to be pigeonholed as either comedy or drama - not in the same way as, say Joseph Gordon-Levitt's 50/50, which uses one to offset the other. Hesher's tone veers wildly from big belly laughs to touching moments of familial grief, with little regard for finding a middle ground. You can just imagine the producers trying to secure distribution.

Producer: "Thanks for meeting with us, guys! We've got a great new comedy featuring the star of (500) Days Of Summer, Oscar-winner Natalie Portman and Rainn Wilson of The Office! It's hilarious and sure to reach a broad audience! Do you want to buy it?"

Executive: "Sound great! Can we watch it before we agree anything?"

Producer: "Umm... No."

"But Joseph Gordon-Levitt IS shirtless for much of the film!"

Rather than be off-putting, the erratic tone makes Hesher an unpredictable thrill, perhaps no surprise when you learn it was co-written by Animal Kingdom writer/director David Michôd. I'd describe it as 'spiky'.

JGL plays the titular character, a lank-haired loner with haggard tattoos (most likely self-inked) and a deep, deep love of heavy metal. We're first introduced to him when grieving youngster TJ (the excellent Devin Brochu) throws a rock through the window of his squat, alerting his presence to the cops. "You fucked me," he says, before thumping TJ and throwing a homemade flash grenade at the police, before speeding off in his gnarly black van to the sounds of Slayer. As character intros go, it's a good 'un.

What's great about Hesher is that its lead character is an idiot, and for the most part, neither Susser or the cast ever try to pretend that he's anything but. Once he turns up on TJ's father's doorstep and takes up residence without asking, he's rude, slovenly, frequently violent and unapologetically stupid. Yes, characters 'learn to love him' as per 'Wacky Owen Wilson Housemate Comedy' rules, but Hesher's odd behaviour is never explained or excused. He's just a guy who loves burning things, getting high and listening to metal. There's something comforting in the fact he's never presented as an offbeat sage of homespun wisdom (the closest he gets is an awkward metaphor about losing one of his balls).

You, Me And Dupree is not improved with weed.

Gordon-Levitt is brilliant, and Hesher is a role unlike anything he's done before. There's a scene in which Hesher, young TJ and their new friend Nicole (Natalie Portman) go for a sneaky dip in a random guy's pool, but before long, Hesher starts chucking the patio furniture in the pool, sets fire to the diving board and thrashes wildly around the water, doing an impression of Luke Skywalker in the trash compactor. It's a tour de force of nihilistic behaviour; utterly without meaning but totally compelling, and more so because Gordon-Levitt is almost invisible in the role.

Portman gives good geek in a fairly throwaway role (in a film full of depressed people, she's got the least to be upset about), and Rainn Wilson showcases dramatic depth you don't get to see in his usual comedic roles. Devin Brochu is outstanding as both the emotional core of the movie and as the straight kid to Hesher's wild man. There's a fantastic scene in which TJ tells Hesher in no uncertain terms he needs to leave him alone; Brochu gives it his all, but Gordon-Levitt steals the scene by punctuating it with a well-timed fart. This is what I mean when I say 'spiky'.

Perhaps more interesting than outright entertaining, Hesher is something of an acquired taste; no characters are particularly sympathetic and the humour is hit and miss in places. However, it's so full of perfectly observed character moments - both subtle and not-so-subtle - that it'd be a crime if it was ignored completely.

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