Hesher
Directed by Spencer Susser
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Devin Brochu, Natalie Portman, Rainn Wilson, Piper Laurie
Rated R for disturbing violent behavior, sexual content, including graphic dialogue, pervasive language and drug content — some in the presence of a child
1 hr. 42 min.

Here’s the thing about Joseph Gordon-Levitt: You never know what kind of movie he’s going to be in, but you can be pretty sure he’s always going to give an interesting performance.

He’s hit the big time in recent years with (500) Days of Summer and Inception, but you don’t have to look too far back to find movies such as Mysterious Skin, Brick and The Lookout. (We’ll leave his appearance in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra out of this.) Those films are unique and interesting, and in each one, he creates a completely different character, always challenging himself rather than coasting on his charm or his looks. But he’s never played a part quite like the titular role in Spencer Susser’s feature debut, Hesher.

Hesher is a long-haired, crudely tattooed, profane headbanger who essentially stalks 13-year-old T.J. (Devin Brochu) before moving, uninvited, into the house T.J. shares with his father, Paul (Rainn Wilson), and grandmother, Madeleine (Piper Laurie). Paul and Madeleine are powerless to stop him. T.J.’s mother died in a car crash just four months earlier. T.J. is perpetually bullied at school, Paul is crippled by depression and Madeleine is slowed by ill health.

So, what does Hesher want with them? It’s hard to say. We want him to become T.J.’s protector, but he’s no bodyguard — he’s an unpredictable, menacing presence who’s more about vengeance than security. To call him a loose cannon would be incorrect, but he certainly is a cannon, albeit one that no one can aim but Hesher himself, a force of anarchy to be reckoned with, especially in a home where everyone is paralyzed by grief. He’s representational of something intense and frightening, but Gordon-Levitt also turns Hesher into a real, flesh-and-blood person.

“As an actor, it’s my job to ground him as a human being,” said Gordon-Levitt. “It was something I spoke a lot with Spencer about because it was definitely his intention to have the character be a human on the one hand, but also maybe mean something more than that. But I left that to him, as to what else he might mean, because nothing would mean anything unless you bought him as a real person. My job was to make sure that as mysterious and as extraordinary a person as he is, you still bought him as a genuine human being.”

Hesher’s not for everyone. It feels like a cult film from moment one and will probably be polarizing for audiences. It’s dark and violent, uncomfortably funny and often very, very sad. Though the story belongs to T.J.— Brochu is terrific — Hesher is Gordon-Levitt’s film; it lives and dies on how you feel about a character who doesn’t really care how you feel about him.

 “I admire him,” says Gordon-Levitt. “In our culture, we’re all quite consumed with our material possessions and our ideas of our future and how that’s supposed to go, and our ideas of our past and how that went. I think Hesher is quite honestly present, and that’s rare these days. He’s just really about the here and now. I found it illuminating to spend some time in that headspace.”

It’s a fascinating performance — although Hesher is an over-the-top personality, he also changes throughout the course of the film. “He has layers and humanity underneath his extreme surface,” Gordon-Levitt says. “That’s ultimately what really attracted me to the part. He’s not just a big, loud thrasher guy. He grows, and the pillars that first define him in the beginning crumble.”

And that’s the thing — it isn’t just about this extreme guy, who’s all about hatred, showing this broken family how to live their lives again. He takes something away, too, some appreciation of considering the future, ruminating on the past and connecting with other people, even if he doesn’t always make the right choices.

“He doesn’t care about consequences,” Gordon- Levitt says. “He doesn’t think that way. He’s not necessarily able to analyze why or how to go about things, because he just acts on his feelings. I think there’s something honest about that.”    

anders@sdcitybeat.com