Jesus’ Son

A movie that refuses to explain its own title is a movie that is either to be admired for its pluckiness, or reviled for its pretentiousness. “Jesus’ Son” falls into the former category, thankfully, using the considerable (and overlooked) talents of star Billy Crudup to tell an atmospheric, darkly funny story about a 1970s drifter trying to find a place in life.

Crudup plays the unnamed main character and narrator, whose nickname is abbreviated “FH” (the long version is vulgar, so we’ll leave it at that). He begins telling the story in 1974, as he is hitchhiking in search of his junkie girlfriend Michelle (Samantha Morton), whom a guy named John Smith (Will Patton) has secreted off to Mexico. He gets as far as the car accident he’s in, and then decides he’d better back up and give us more background.

So we go back to 1971, when a man sleeping in his VW Bug leads him to a party where he meets Michelle, who is dating the soon-to-be-killed McInnis (John Ventimiglia). FH works with a guy named Wayne (Denis Leary) to make enough money to get some drugs; he also gets a job at a hospital with Georgie (the delightful Jack Black), who helps him steal drugs from the pharmacy. It’s an hour into the film before we catch up to the car accident part again.

In other words, the film’s pace and tone are as laid-back as its main character — who, by the way, is extraordinarily likable. Crudup holds the film together in every way, providing narration that is wry but not sarcastic, and which is full of novelist-style details (he explains to a “T” who John Smith is with just a couple sentences) and near-poetic descriptions.

Probably the most entertaining sequence (in a characteristically black sort of way) is FH’s dealings with the spaced-out hospital orderly Georgie. (When a man comes into the hospital with a wife-inflicted knife in his eye, the nurse says, “We’d better get you lying down,” to which the man responds non-chalantly, “OK, I feel ready for something like that.” The film is full of brilliant, witty dialogue like that, and at times hits upon profundity and wisdom.)

The two accidentally run over a rabbit. When Georgie goes back to salvage it for rabbit stew (using the knife he pulled out of the hospital patient’s eye, by the way), he discovers the rabbit was pregnant and delivers a handful of tiny bunnies, which he and FH decide to keep and raise. The next morning, FH discovers that, as they slept in the cab of the pickup truck, the bunnies slid around behind FH and he accidentally squashed them. That scene, in which FH is sobbing and Georgie is berating him, is both hysterically funny and deeply poignant. It’s a moment that could have been played purely for laughs, but Crudup and insightful director Alison Maclean give it more than that, and I’m glad they did.

Again, I have no idea why it’s called “Jesus’ Son.” There is religious symbolism here and there, and a number of references to organized religion and to Jesus Christ. And near the end, there is a bit of mysticism that seems typical of something taking place in the mid-’70s, but which seems unaccounted for in the film. Why FH’s fascination with the Mennonite couple in Arizona? What IS his place in the world, anyway? The answers to these questions, and others, are somewhat unsatisfying. Still, the film is perfectly evocative of the era in which it takes place, coming across as a cautionary tale about drugs while still maintaining a cheerful, if sometimes moody, attitude.

A- (; R, frequent harsh profanity, frequent drug use, brief graphic sexuality, some nudity, brief violence.)