The Second Coming

The path of righteousness: Director Alison Maclean on the set

With all due respect to Denis Johnson, who penned the drug addict's diary Jesus' Son, the film version of said book belongs to director Alison Maclean like a fix to a junkie. It's sometimes hard to fathom that a filmmaker's takes on radically different source materials could end up sharing the same sensibilities, although such instances naturally provide the ideal proof of the auteur theory. (Think of how efficiently Spielberg's oeuvre brings Alice Walker, Michael Crichton, and J.G. Ballard under the same suburban heartlight.) In the case of Maclean, both Crush, her 1992 debut (based on an original story by the director), and Jesus' Son, her long-awaited followup, are close studies of aberrant personalities--one a predatory chameleon, the other a passive dope fiend. And both begin with devastating car accidents, the highway serving as a symbol of both danger and possibility.

In some ways, the filmmaker's preoccupation with the long and winding road isn't surprising: Maclean moved with her family from her birthplace in Ottawa to Auckland, New Zealand, at the impressionable age of 14, and then, much later, to New York City. Still, when Maclean's latest travels brought her to the Walker to introduce Jesus' Son at the "Women With Vision" series, I couldn't help asking the director to submit her signature style to some handwriting analysis.

"It's pure coincidence," she says of the "uncanny" similarity between the opening scenes of her two films. "The [Johnson] book itself begins with a car accident, and I loved the book when I read it--but not for that reason. And yet, at the end of writing the script, I realized that it began with a guy on the side of the road and a car accident, and it ended, at least in the first draft, with a wide-angle shot of a barren landscape--which is exactly the same as Crush. It's so bizarre, including the fact that the production designer came along with a wrecked, red car, just like in Crush--and we hadn't even talked about it."

Hmmm...perhaps we should come back to that auteur thing a little later. In the meantime, the guy on the side of the road in Jesus' Son is "Fuckhead" (a salamandrine Billy Crudup), a good-natured, drug-dependent early-Seventies drifter who thumbs a ride with a vacationing family and somehow senses that their car is going to crash--which it does. Fuckhead's recollections of his vagrant life then meander freely between his meetings with the unwashed "angel" (Samantha Morton) who turns him on to shooting up; an alcoholic divorcé (Denis Leary) who enlists him to help strip his own house of its copper wiring in trade for booze money; and a disorderly orderly (Jack Black) who attends to an ER patient with a hunting knife stuck in his eye.

As the wacky bloodletting and split-screen overdoses unexpectedly bring our hero nearer the path of righteousness (indeed, the upbeat finale plays like an AA redemption story), Maclean's stylishly grungy trip through the counterculture goes for a euphoric high rather than a purely hallucinogenic one, losing its own buzz in the process. But Jesus' Son is vividly filmed and impeccably costumed nonetheless (note the hitchhiking Fuckhead's habit of wearing his sleeping bag like a vampire's cape), and its calculated mix of horror and comedy recalls Maclean's moody first feature in a way that goes beyond "pure coincidence."

"I like surprising people," says the art-schooled Maclean--who, surprisingly, has directed Natalie Imbruglia videos as well as episodes of Sex and the City. "I like combining tones, so that the viewer has a more complicated emotional response." And how is the director able to display such range and ambiguity in an industry where simplicity is a virtue? That's easy: "With difficulty."


Jesus' Son starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre.

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