Metal has always been an "outsider" genre. It attracts the angry and the violent, the depressed and the defeated, the hopeless and the humiliated. Metal is a refuge, an outpouring of aggression that serves as much as therapy as it does music. The best films made about metal understand this and reflect it; it's very easy to separate the directors who really get it from the hacks who simply try to co-opt a genre for ironic consideration and broad characterizations. Spencer Susser obviously gets it, and the resultant film is one that takes metal's dystopic isolationism to a nihilistic extreme, crafting a dirty, arid shitscape that screams sadness and rage.
The film follows barely teenaged T.J. Forney (Devin Brochu) as he attempts to navigate the world created by the death of his mother several months prior. The loss has left his father Paul (Rainn Wilson) in a walking coma, immune to almost everything happening outside the sphere of his private grief. T.J. is tormented by bullies at school, too meek to fight back and completely unable to cope with the anger bubbling up inside him. His only friend is Nicole (Natalie Portman), a lowly grocery store cashier who becomes the object of T.J.'s misplaced emotions. A chance act of vandalism in a junkyard summons Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the ultimate id personified, a burned-out metal fanatic prone to random acts of destruction, pyromania, and all-out badassing. Hesher does not take any shit, and he insinuates himself into T.J and Paul's lives and begins to awaken the feelings and awareness still hidden in both.
Hesher is an almost mystical presence in the film, at once of this earth and far beyond it. He appears wordlessly at various times of stress in T.J.'s life, more of a mocking figure than any sort of refuge or reprieve. T.J. wonders why Hesher stands idly while bullies force him to eat a urinal cake; similarly, Hesher can't seem to understand why T.J. is so unwilling to fight back. Hesher's whole life is a chronology of doing exactly that, and he's so far removed from society's norms that he can't fathom not acting out of individual desire. This sort of behaviour could be interpreted as base selfishness, but in Susser's world this sort of objectivism is an ideal; Hesher is a standard against which all other characters in the film are judged. He adheres to something akin to collectivism, a passivity that allows "win/win" situations for everyone (illustrated by an amusing anecdote involving an orgy.) Susser complicates this further by making Hesher extremely unlikeable. There is no way to feel any sympathy towards him; he simply is and he acts, and that's it. It's very black and white. This lends an interesting distance to the picture of Hesher as disturbed; when we watch him go on a destructive rampage at a swimming pool, damaging both inanimate objects and himself, we watch and feel almost nothing other than the impact of watching the damages occur. Much like Nicole and T.J. trying to take in exactly what's happening as they watch Hesher set fire to the pool water (again, the idea of mysticism), we're in a place where traditional values are being eroded, a landscape that is totally alien from a moral perspective.
Hesher's effect on T.J. is what the film is really about. There's always a question of whether or not Hesher exists or is just a created part of T.J.'s personality, brought into being to help him cope with his grief. A "hesher" is a broad descriptive term attached to those who look to be involved with heavy metal culture; there is little personality associated with the term other than stereotypical ideas of grit, dirt, violence and antisocial tendencies. Hesher is simply nobody, an exertion of will on the world. As he leads T.J. down a strange road of embracing anger, rage, and revenge, there's a strong suggestion from Susser that this sort of societal antagonism is what really distinguishes a bland existence from a meaningful, fully lived one. Though the tone of Susser's film is distinctly darker, it's hard not to see echoes of Akira Kurosawa's "Ikiru"; both films are concerned with illustrating the damage done when we hide behind ideas of what life should be rather than embracing the side of ourselves that is actually able to live them. Hesher's "instruction" opens T.J. up and shows him the necessity of resistance in life; Hesher's presence also does wonders to wake Paul out of his grief-driven stupor, reminding him of what he still has left despite all the loss he's suffered.
Nicole is an interesting character in that she seems to be an illustration of what average existence and compliance ultimately breed. She has a good heart and is attempting to play by what she sees as the "rules" of society; all this gets her is a job that demeans her and barely allows her live along with a continuing string of indignities and defeats. She is the opposite of Hesher in every regard, and Susser allows this contrast to obviously value one way of thinking above another. Nicole is used and humiliated and makes poor decisions, inflicting emotional damage on those closest to her in the same manner that Hesher doles out punishment to random objects. When Nicole sleeps with Hesher we grasp the depth of her self-hatred; the world we live in is so caustic and crushing we're more apt to resist anything resembling real affection in favor of sensory experience disguised as emotional connection.
Susser's world is a strange but effective distillation of Harmony Korine, Todd Solondz, Cameron Jamie, and Wes Anderson. The landscape of "Hesher" bears more than a passing resemblance to the grotesque world of Korine's "Gummo"; so too does the effective use of heavy metal music and culture to create an aura of bleak defeatism. There's a nod to Solondz in the awkwardness of every interaction and the demand to view ethically compromised characters without judgment, and like Anderson there's a melancholy poignancy to every action we witness. The violence in Hesher is easily something that would belong in one of Jamie's backyard wrestling films; so too is the layer of dust and dirt that hazes over "Hesher"'s aesthetic. Susser's ultimate suggestion is a little more hopeful than any of the aforementioned directors (aside from maybe Anderson, whose overall vision isn't near as malicious as the others) but the arrival at that epiphany exacts a heavy emotional toll on the majority of the film's characters; true enlightenment never comes without a cost.
The acting is superb throughout. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is astonishing as Hesher; there seems little this man can't do in whatever role he's cast. Rainn Wilson turns in another excellent dramatic performance, making good on all the potential he showed in "Six Feet Under," thankfully distancing himself from "The Office" once more. Portman is fine here as well, leading me to wonder why so many other reviewers have singled her out as terrible in this film. There seems to be an issue with making her "unattractive", as though this sort of transformation were beyond belief and that we can't take Nicole's struggles in life seriously because there's no way to get past the idea that this is the breathtaking Natalie Portman. That sort of criticism is assinine; Portman vanishes into her role her with grace and depth, and I found her simple, banal anxieties to be incredibly relatable and realistic. The real star, though, is Brochu, who brings such anguish and torture to T.J. that it's almost painful to watch him onscreen. Grief is not an easy emotion to convey, and Brochu does so with restraint; it seems like he could snap at anytime but he never goes so far overboard that his depiction becomes caricature.
This is a complex but rewarding film. Like Todd Solondz's "Happiness," Spencer Susser has given us a portrait of modern banality and complacency that is both disturbing and moving. The focus on the idea of individualism at any cost is one that may put a lot of people off, but these sorts of presentations are absolutely necessary if we're to break free of the constraints society continuously imposes on us. Hesher is an ideal that we all need to aspire to; compassion and resistance aren't always at odds with one another. You can hate most people and still be a good person. A life lived mostly alone doesn't make you a failure. Sometimes it takes destruction to make people realize they're sleepwalking through life; the meaning of metal isn't so much music as it is defiance and questions. Susser knows this, and his film an open engagement with possibility and the power of self-realization.