In one scene of Spencer Susser’s movie, Hesher, a teacher lectures a classroom full of 12 year-olds, including the film’s hero, T.J. (Devin Brochu), on metaphor in Shakespeare. What the teacher is saying is way over the children’s heads, and all of them are bored when the title character, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, pops up at the window and causes a distraction. This is just one of the occasions when this strange character appears, as if out of nowhere, in the life of T.J., who lives with his father (Rainn Wilson) and grandmother (Piper Laurie) and is sunk, like them, in grief over the death two months earlier of his mother (Monica Staggs) in a car crash. It makes us wonder if Hesher himself is a metaphor of some kind. A foul-mouthed, pot-smoking pyromaniac with home-made tattoos expressive of violent, obscene and punk iconography, he moves into T.J.’s grief-stricken home because no one has the energy to throw him out and, well, you can guess what happens.
Spoiler alert! The movie, after all, belongs to the ever popular genre of the therapeutic romance. But if Hesher is meant to be a metaphor, he’s far from being the only one in the movie. At one point, he relates an obscene anecdote of his own sexual prowess involving four women simultaneously in the presence of Nicole (Natalie Portman), an impoverished check-out girl on whom T.J. develops a crush after she rescues him from a bully (Nicolai Dorian). “Is that some kind of perverted metaphor for me?” she asks him.
“What?” asks Hesher.
“Never mind,” she replies.
Evidently it’s not, however, since not long afterwards and much to T.J.’s disgust she herself goes to bed with Hesher whose alarmingly feral — not to say criminal — ways are supposed to be weirdly attractive to women.
If we don’t count Hesher himself, the most obvious of the film’s metaphors is the crumpled wreck of the family car in which T.J.’s mother died. This is what provokes T.J. to beard the bully, even though he knows he will be beaten, and it is also a parting gift from Hesher to the boy when, his work done with the family, he disappears as mysteriously as he had appeared at the beginning. Presumably, T.J. so desperately wants the car because it is his way of symbolically holding on to his mother, but the thing is metaphorically inert. Not so Hesher. If he stands for anything but himself it is for the authentic, unrepressed man within us who is and who — so we are meant to understand — ought to be liberated by grief. When T.J.’s dad drags him to a group therapy session, we catch a brief glimpse of the alternative: a couple whose daughter was murdered and who are all but speechless with grief. They are a mere vignette of emotion left by the wayside by Mr. Susser, like a memento mori. Better to get back to crazy Hesher.
Rex Reed says that “Hesher is a violent, uncontrollable wild man who might easily hail from Borneo,” but this is not true. I can’t say that I know very many people from Borneo, but I have a strong sense that they are brought up to be emotionally continent, even in cases of bereavement, and not to transform their grief into anger, violence and obscene self-indulgence which they then think themselves licensed to inflict on others. No, I’m afraid that we must acknowledge this Hesher, this thing of darkness, as Prospero does Caliban, ours and not the Borneans’. He is the symbol — or metaphor, if you like, since the term is so often thus misused — of our faith in unmediated emotional authenticity as a panacea for all the psychic ills our flesh is heir to. At any rate, it works for T.J. and his sad-sack dad, though granny has a journey, sir, shortly to go. Her master calls her; she must not say no.
One curious detail about the movie is that over the closing credits we first hear heavy metal or punk music favored by Hesher which then gives way to the syrupy Muzak number that had been playing in Charlie’s Market, where Nicole works, earlier in the film. It is Perry Como’s 1945 recording of “Till the End of Time,” a song adapted by Ted Mossman and Buddy Kaye from Chopin’s Polonaise in A flat Op. 53 and given a lyric that goes, in part, like this:
Till the wells run dry and each mountain disappears
I’ll be there for you to care for you through laughter and through tears.
So Take my heart in sweet surrender and tenderly say that I’m
The one you love and live for till the end of time.
I don’t know, but I think it must be yet another metaphor — this one for the pleasing fairy tales that people used to tell themselves in order to deal with life’s disappointments before they knew of the potent restorative effects of letting it, hippie-like, all hang out. But with the song placed where it is the mockery tends to get a bit lost. Instead, it sounds almost wistful. Maybe, like T.J. and his family, we have to learn to live with the Hesher within ourselves, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it.