The past couple years have been particularly kind to Joseph Gordon-Levitt. For an actor who had his career jump-started on syndicated TV face-palmers like Roseanne or 3rd Rock from the Sun, Gordon-Levitt has risen above the two-dimensional caricatures of the 1990s teenager and into the more diversified and weighty shoes of the post-2k twentysomething. Despite the stereotypical pratfalls many actors of these niche roles often take to (inexplicable wealth and undeserved senses of self-importance, I’m looking at you), Gordon-Levitt has a seemingly magical ability to convince an audience that he, as a person, is just as fiercely intelligent, charming, and empathetic as his characters are written to be. So it’s easy to see where his decision to take up the titular role of a nihilistic, violence-prone, anti-authoritarian metal-head in Hesher might inspire a few heads to start scratching.
The film itself (which made its festival circuit in 2010 but didn’t see theatrical release till this past year) plays out less like a story about Gordon-Levitt’s character than it does a vehicle for him to drive head-long through your HD-TV, leaving a sparks and jagged pieces of shrapnel flying in his wake. The bulk of the narrative is focused, rather, on T.J. (Devin Brochu), an angsty pre-teen with a gnarly bowl-cut and a royally f*cked-up family situation. After his mother dies in a car-accident, T.J. has devoted himself entirely to recovering the newly impounded station-wagon she lost her (and, as he believes, his own) life in. T.J.’s dad (Rainn Wilson) has retreated into a state of reclusive, strangling depression, wandering around the family home in tighty-whities and a bathrobe for a majority of the film, and T.J.’s live-in grandma battles dementia and arthritis with medical marijuana (to space-tastic results). As T.J. finds himself increasingly isolated both at home by a family caught up in their own problems and at school where bullies seem to prey off his recent tragedy, he gets increasingly frustrated and eventually lashes out at a nearby housing construction site, throwing a rock through a window… unfortunately for T.J., Hesher’s been squatting in the house.
From there Hesher descends into a blur of dynamite, lighter fluid, Metallica-worship, and all-around nihilistic mayhem. Gordon-Levitt’s deadpan, dead-serious, and dead-on character study is wholly engrossing: to think an actor usually caught in cardigans on-screen could pull off a long-haired, shirt-ripping, perpetually anarchistic metal-head is utterly fascinating, not only because it defies logic but because Gordon-Levitt does it so well. Beyond the chaotic fun to be had with the eponymous character’s antics, the film also manages to put its heart on display despite the insanity at the centerpiece. As Hesher becomes a forced fixture in T.J.’s life (literally invading his home and going on a personal crusade to terrorize T.J.’s bullies), his pattern of destruction becomes something more along the lines of therapy, allowing T.J. a chance at moving past his mom’s death through learning how to live on his own again.
Overall, the film is fantastically realized and darkly hilarious. The cast, which also includes Natalie Portman as the object of T.J.’s ill-directed affections, are all well suited for their roles but rarely push their characters past the narrative moment. Gordon-Levitt, on the other hand, is nothing short of phenomenal: his uninhibited performance leaves a mark you won’t soon forget. A must watch for anyone who’s looking for a little therapeutic chaos in their lives.