To Fart Like a Man
By Matt Connolly
Dir. Spencer Susser, U.S., Newmarket Films
Those searching for fresh evidence that the collective obsession otherwise known as “the crisis of masculinity” remains alive and kicking: look no further than Hesher. The film practically writhes with anxiety over how one should “be a man” in a world where carriers of the Y chromosome have become either moist-eyed schlubs or hair-trigger quasi-sociopaths. For thirteen-year-old T.J. (Devin Brochu), this means dealing with the sudden death of his mother largely on his own, as depressed father Paul (Rainn Wilson) collapses into a medicated stupor and sweet-tempered grandma Madeleine (Piper Laurie) tries to keep the household running. T.J. obsesses over the family’s smashed-up car—a totem of happier times that’s been unceremoniously hauled off to the dump—and attempts to ward off a particularly brutal school bully to little avail. What’s to become of this lost, angry boy?
Enter the eponymous antihero (played with a gleeful snarl by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and the particular brand of ass-kicking, skirt-chasing, political-correctness-is-for-pansies manhood he represents. T.J. finds him in an abandoned house on the outskirts of town, where he narrowly escapes the law’s grasp by launching what appears to be a homemade grenade at an approaching patrol car. Pissed that T.J. messed up his living situation, Hesher begins stalking him around his school and home, peering at him through doors or rumbling towards him in his junky white van, heavy-metal blasting through the windows. He eventually (and somewhat inexplicably) begins living in T.J.’s house, lounging in his underwear and observing the family’s zombie-like interactions with one another. Not liking what he sees, he begins schooling T.J. in the fine art of messing shit up and stirring the emotional pot within the home.
He’s a rebel with less a cause than an urge, an instinctual desire to unsettle established routines regardless of consequence. Gordon-Levitt’s long-haired hellion stalks through the film with his shirt off and id out. He not only trashes a stranger’s pool, but lights the diving board on fire for good measure. Flatulence and belches exit his body without apology. When T.J. refuses to go on a walk with Madeleine, Hesher begins expounding in detail on the possibility of her being raped in the street. Harsh stuff, but at least somebody’s bringing up this crap, right? In other words, director Susser implies, he’s just the right blend of mischievous troublemaker and screw-your-feelings raconteur to blast this family out of its dead-mom doldrums, not to mention teach T.J. a thing or two about asserting his inner rebel-stud.
T.J. remains ambivalent about Hesher’s presence throughout much of the film. He warily eyes his destructive jaunts even as he slowly gleans their appeal and, eventually, their limits; if only Susser (along with co-screenwriters David Michôd and Brian Charles Frank) had opted for similar nuance. He doesn’t exactly condone Hesher’s leering sexual comments, random acts of public mayhem, and general ball-scratching dude-dom, though he certainly spends a lot of his film’s 100-minute running time capturing their every crude detail. T.J. offers quite a sounding board for his more extreme acts of vulgarity, as when, say, he asks T.J. if he’s had sex with a girl by pushing his middle finger repeatedly into a mound of mashed potatoes. As the film grinds on, however, it becomes increasingly clear that Susser views the impropriety of Hesher’s actions as a kind of last-honest-man stand against a world gone soft and indecisive. Only through Hesher’s incessant prodding does T.J. finally begin to confront his own repressed anguish over his mother’s death and Paul pull himself out of his crippling depression. He only farts in your face because he wants you to feel, man.
Susser initially paints Hesher as a kind of phantom figure, a man without a past who suddenly appears in the corner of the shot in defiance of spatiotemporal reality. Ultimately, these gestures only make Hesher feel less like a flesh-and-blood character than a guttersnipe guardian angel. Such a sentimental take on genuinely sociopathic behavior reduces a potentially complex look at volatile masculinity into a moist-eyed celebration of a rebel spirit. Ironically, a film that treats “softer” forms of emotional catharsis as eye-rolling wastes of time—see the largely caricatured scenes of T.J. and Paul in a family grieving group—reduces actual grief to the equivalent of a poster in a psychiatrist’s waiting room: real men express their inner rage, or whatever.
Do women fit into this anywhere? The characters themselves are pretty thin on paper. Madeleine mostly putters around the house and cares for her boys. Then there’s Nicole (Natalie Portman), a supermarket cashier who meets T.J. after pulling a bully off of him in the store parking lot and giving him a ride home. You only have to catch a glimpse of Portman decked out in indie-ugly glasses framed by stringy brown hair to get the role: yet another sad-sack single girl pining to escape her disappointing late-twenties. Susser uses these women for fairly schematic—and perhaps insultingly gendered—purposes. Hesher forms a tentative friendship with Madeleine as he hangs around the house, even offering her a few hits off his bong to relieve her aches and pains. And despite the implication that T.J. develops romantic feelings for her, it becomes thuddingly clear by the end that Nicole is on hand to ultimately fill the maternal role left behind by his dead mother.
Despite this, these scenes feel the liveliest and most lived-in. Piper Laurie makes Madeline a caring and quizzical woman, observing a world she understands but cannot quite deal with in its entirety. Her bong-bonding moments with Hesher don’t devolve into old-lady-gets-baked giggles, but become rather instances of slightly slurry connection. Nicole and T.J’s wanderings through the neighborhoods and highways of the film’s unspecified city, meanwhile, showcase the director’s brother and DP Morgan Susser’s occasionally striking eye for washed-out suburban anonymity. When Nicole breaks down in front of T.J. in her parked car as the late-afternoon sun streams in, it’s a moment of genuine pathos between two people hurting in different ways.
Hesher’s quality rises when Hesher himself does not occupy center stage. It certainly offers more time to appreciate Brochu’s engagingly pensive features and calm command of the camera. Susser tracks in on him constantly, isolating T.J. in his own world of confusion and pain; and Brochu imbues these moments of emotional thaw with a refreshing lack of sentiment. Instances like this make Hesher’s clowning seem all the more like a combination of audience-goosing shock value and expedient plot device. Consider the film that Hesher might have been had T.J. found his emotional epiphanies without the assistance of a declawed demon-id of male bravado that points towards the filmmaker’s preoccupations more than it illuminates the characters’ inner lives. Perhaps such a movie requires a little less reliance on facile notions of what a male-centric study in grief and anger looks like. And perhaps, as Hesher might put it, it takes a little more balls to do so.