Grief is an ugly, raw, complicated, and necessary emotion. I’ve never been a big fan of the Kübler-Ross Model (also known as the Five Stages of Grief) because it seems like something constructed more to comfort those dealing with the grief-stricken rather than an honest explanation of the griever’s emotions. It says “What stage are you at because you’re kind of bumming the rest of us out.” Hesher gives a giant middle finger to a pat, easily digestible notion of grief and instead throws the viewer into the violent, angry emotions that arise when grieving over the loss of a loved one. Unfortunately, it never goes much deeper than that and the thematic simplicity keeps Joseph Gordon-Levitt from giving an honest performance because he’s stuck playing a contrived one-dimensional character who merely serves to illustrate a point. Then the film, which at least had the consistency to hammer home its single theme, shoots itself in the foot with an ending unworthy of its tone and attitude.
T.J. (Devin Brochu) recently lost his mother in a car accident. His father Paul (Rainn Wilson) is despondent and spends most of his days sleeping the pain away on the couch of T.J.’s grandmother Madeline (Piper Laurie). One day, T.J. is riding his bike through a construction site, crashes, and in his rage, he throws a stone through a glass window. Like summoning an angry guardian demon, Hesher (Gordon-Levitt) emerges from the half-built home, pulls in T.J. and threatens his life. T.J. manages to escape, but later finds that Hesher is his new houseguest and if young T.J. does anything to remove Hesher from his home, his new long-haired, tattooed anti-friend will “cut off his nose.”
Where Hesher deserves some credit is that it doesn’t put on kid gloves when it comes to child endangerment. There is no mistaking Hesher as some instructional figure who will gruffly but good-naturedly guide T.J. through his pain. Hesher is crass, dangerous, selfish, and the only reason that no one calls the cops on him is that Paul is too depressed, T.J. is too scared, and Madeline is too sweet. But Hesher isn’t an evil guy. He’s an arsonist and a gigantic ass-hole, but he’s also somewhat protective of young T.J….to an extent. He’s willing to let the kid get beat-up by a bully, but then he goes with T.J. to torch the bully’s car.
Hesher keeps you guessing to his motives, but those motives eventually become irrelevant because he’s not so much a character as a construct. He’s a force of chaos meant to represent T.J.’s grief and anger at the loss of his mother, but that’s all he can really do. As much as Gordon-Levitt tries to define the character right down to the way he holds his fork, Hesher never feels like a real person because his actions are so outlandish and his presence is so rigidly defined as to negate any humanity.
But the film could be commended if it held on to that symbol—one-dimensional as it may be—and really hammer it home at the end with an honest catharsis. Hesher does the exact opposite by pulling a stunt so saccharine and contrived that I would assume it came from a studio note if this weren’t an independent film (and also if there was some studio out there that was totally cool with the level of child-endangerment this movie joyfully depicts).
I applaud co-writer/director Spencer Susser on making a film that angrily charges at the emotion of grief and makes the viewer confront the emotion with almost no hand-holding. Brochu gives a powerful performance that will most likely be overshadowed by the sheer abandon Gordon-Levitt threw into the title character, and the rest of the cast does a fine job. But the film never goes any deeper than its central emotion. That lack of depth then begins to show in Hesher and eventually the film can’t sustain its concept. Finally, Hesher devolves into the kind of movie that would have earned a middle-finger from the previous 90 minutes.