Hesher: Method in the Madness

By May 16, 2011Movie Reviews

The dictionary defines chaos as "complete disorder and confusion."  They say that at the beginning of everything just after The Big Bang, chaos prevailed – the universe was filled with an incredibly high energy density, huge temperatures and pressures and was rapidly expanding and cooling.  Temperatures were so high that the random motion of particles were at relativistic speed and particle-antiparticle pairs of all kinds were being continuously created and destroyed in collisions (thank you, Wikipedia).  It was only through an unknown reaction called baryogensis that matter was able to predominate over antimatter, and the Universe as we know it was able to proceed.

Being largely creatures of habit and organization, the true implications of chaos are difficult for us to reconcile in our lives, and often times, in our art.  The avant-garde and the inaccessible often fail to grab our attention at the best of times and make us uncomfortable at the worst of times.  Hesher is often uncomfortable because Hesher is chaos.  But one must remember that order and beauty can often emerge from chaos – just look at the universe that eventually emerged from The Big Bang.  The same can be said of Hesher: complete and utter chaos that leads to a surprising and logical order.

The chaos and disorder that is prevalent in Hesher is due in part to a recent death, that of Paul Forney's wife and his son, T.J.'s mother.  The death has thrown the Forney family into uncertainty, leaving Paul (Rainn Wilson) heavily medicated and largely absent to T.J. (Devin Brochu), who was already a lonely kid now made even lonelier.  T.J. stumbles upon Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) accidentally, hurling a rock out of frustration through the window of the unfinished house where Hesher had been squatting.  The commotion draws the attention of a security guard that chases Hesher off and suddenly, the long-haired shirtless squatter is homeless.

That is, until he shows up squatting in T.J.'s house.  In a way, it only makes sense – T.J. ruined Hesher's living situation, so Hesher is going to ruin T.J.'s.  The fact that neither T.J. nor Paul nor Paul's sweet elderly mother, Madeleine (Piper Laurie), question Hesher's appearance or put up a fight are testaments to both the emotional numbness of the Forney family and the fact that Hesher just doesn't give a shit about anything or anybody.  Hesher, after all, is chaos.

The vulgar man young man sports homemade tattoos of a hand flipping the bird and a stick figure shooting himself in the head.  His soundtrack is 80's metal played unapologetically loud.  He smokes in the house while lounging in his underwear and watching the adult channel that he procured by scaling the telephone pole.  Earlier in the day Hesher does nothing when he spots T.J. being force fed a urinal cake by a school bully; then later he takes his young housemate to the bully's house and sets his car on fire.  At no moment does it ever seem as though Hesher's presence in the Forney household is behooving them, yet is it possible that he's exactly what the family needs to get them through their trying times?

That question seems like the tail end to a bullshit logline for a conventional Hollywood fish out of water flick, and yet despite Hesher being anything but conventional, the answer is surprisingly and inadvertently yes.  The formula would dictate that the grieving Forney family would take on a rowdy house guest in Hesher, whose crude exterior belies a wise-beyond-his-years interior that gradually emerges as he instructs the family how to live and love again.  But with Hesher, co-writer/director Spencer Susser breaks the formula, spits in its face, then lights it on fire.

Hesher as a character is so bizarre and inaccessible because we as an audience are never informed where he's going, where he's been or why.  His behavior from scene to scene is completely unpredictable and motivated by impulses that only he seemingly understands, and what results is quite often destruction brought on by a Molotov cocktail mix of adult disregard for others' opinions and a juvenile grasp on how to express himself.  He can't seem to go five minutes without destroying something, be it an object or people's comfort levels, and yet Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrays the man in such a way that it's not impossible to believe in the heart that Susser injects into the story.  Somehow, by the time Hesher is instructing Madeleine how to smoke her medical cigarettes out of his bong, it all makes sense in a completely bizarre way.

It would be a stretch to call Hesher misunderstood, but it would be equally difficult to write him off as one-dimensional.  One might even think that if not for some minor changes in his upbringing, Hesher would be a vastly different person.  And yet, it's precisely because he’s a force of nature that we believe in the results he leaves in his wake.  Hesher's actions more often than not greatly upset those in his immediate vicinity, but seeing as those people are primarily the Forneys, who have been so emotionally disconnected for some time, the fact that he's enabling them to feel anything, even hatred, is a step in the right direction. 

This is not meant to assume that Hesher's appearance in the Forneys' lives is serendipitous or divine, though.  On the contrary, Hesher's forceful insertion into the Forney household is entirely random and self-serving.  The fact that he ends up helping them along the way to emotional recovery is almost coincidental or accidental.  Hesher's aura is not one of healing and love that helps others gravitate back towards each other, but one of such severe repulsion and response that people are driven away from him so forcefully that they collide back into each other.  Powerful reactions result when atoms collide, why should it be any different for people?

And in the end when the credits roll, Hesher somehow makes sense.  You may not be sure how it got to that point and you may not have seen it coming, but in a film where a life lesson is derived from a story involving a fivesome with four girls in the back of the title character's van, you just have to learn to get lost in the chaos.