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1 item from 1999

Film review: 'Jesus' Son' 'Jesus' Son' Marks Maclean's Rebirth / Director demonstrates graceful style in film about '70s counterculture

14 September 1999 | The Hollywood Reporter - Movie News | See recent The Hollywood Reporter - Movie News news »

Billy Crudup gives a career performance as a young man who disdains convention in "Jesus' Son", the first feature in seven years by gifted young filmmaker Alison Maclean ("Crush").

Melancholy and serene, funny and heartbreaking, this is a tough, deadly accurate portrait of the hedonism and freedom experienced by a young kid avidly searching out his own thrills and excitement during the last burst of the counterculture in the early 1970s.

There isn't much of a story, but the New Zealand-born Maclean deftly captures a specific place and time. There is a clear passion and intelligence and a strong directing presence at work. This Lions Gate production, in collaboration with Alliance Atlantis, has sparked widespread critical support and strong word-of-mouth at the Venice and Telluride film festivals.

With its strong cast and favorable reviews, "Jesus' Son" should stand out among specialized works, even in the crowded late-fall release schedule. Though much of the film is downbeat, the feeling of optimism and renewal offered by its conclusion should resonate with its audience.

Adapted from the highly regarded short story collection of Denis Johnson, "Jesus' Son" draws on the same hip, off-color humor and powerful visual strategies of Gus Van Sant's 1989 "Drugstore Cowboy". It offers the same edgy allure of the excitement and depravity of the outsider drug culture to the alienated outsiders growing up between the disillusionment of Vietnam and Watergate. Crudup plays a quietly desperate loser known by his associates by a word that can't be printed here, though is shortened to FH.

Maclean plays around with the form, breaking the narrative, using intertitles to create an eerie sense of anticipation and tension. She skips around like a needle on a vinyl record, creating a mood and feeling of surprise throughout. The first half unfolds in the Iowa cornfields, most of the action set in a farmhouse where FH and his derelict friends get stoned and hang out.

But there is also the possibility of unexpected, random violence -- a gunshot, a appallingly funny knife wound to the eye -- that continually throws off expectations. FH captures the fancy of a beautiful, rebellious free spirit named Michelle (excellent young actress Samantha Morton). Their scenes have a poignancy and depth in the playful physical interaction and their growing dependency on each other. Their quest is an extended adventure -- living in hotels, getting hooked on heroin -- until tragedy ensues.

Morton, the best thing in Woody Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown", is going to be around for a long time. She has a face that registers a range of emotions. Her work is quiet though bold and daring without calling undue attention. Crudup also delivers on the promise and the high expectations that have surrounded him. His performance is concentrated and intense, with an alert, sharp feeling for FH's emotional conflict.

The last part takes place in Phoenix, where the brighter, sun-drenched atmosphere leads to FH's slow realization of responsibility and concern for others, which Maclean conveys through his growing obsession with a beautiful young Amish woman that has a stunning, poetic resolution.

"Jesus' Son" deals with serious themes: addiction, death, resurrection. Maclean demonstrates a fluid and graceful visual style, drawing on the brooding landscapes, that mirrors the interior lives of the primary characters. The film also boasts a wonderful secondary cast, headed by Holly Hunter as a hard-luck woman whose husbands and lovers have all met horrible fates and Denis Leary as a sad, desperate, easygoing criminal whose life of diminished expectations reaches an appropriately sad conclusion.


Lions Gate

Alliance Atlantis presents

an Alison Maclean film

Credits: Producer: Lydia Dean Pilcher; Producer-screenwriters: Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia; Director: Alison Maclean; Screenwriter: Oren Moverman; Director of photography: Adam Kimmel; Editor: Stuart Levy; Production designer: David Doernberg; Music: Randall Poster. Cast: FH: Billy Crudup; Michelle: Samantha Morton. With: Denis Leary, Dennis Hopper, Holly Hunter, Jack Black, Will Patton, Greg Germann. No MPAA rating. Color/stereo. Running time -- 111 minutes.


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