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Bless the Child
(If he's Jesus' Son; otherwise, throw the little creep in a dumpster)

by Lucius Shepard
November 2000

Living in California benefits anyone inclined to review films, because the Golden State's concession counters offer specially treated candy designed to lower the critic's IQ to a level appropriate to the film he or she has chosen to see. Thus it was when I purchased a pack of Junior Mints prior to exposing myself to the cinematic potentials of Bless the Child, I did so with the idea of lowering my analytic capacity to that of a mildly retarded person for whom English was a second language. Junior Mints are always my candy of choice whenever confronted with the task of writing about a film incorporating Satanic material, and since Bless the Child was directed by the uninspired Chuck Russell (Eraser, The Mask) and starred Kim Basinger, one of the worst actresses ever to win an Academy Award, a list headed by the late Barbra Streisand (I know, I know—some say she still lives), I set about to consume the entire box.

The patriarch of modern devil movies, The Exorcist, while more than a little overrated, stands nonetheless as a monumental achievement when compared to its skanky grandchildren, films such as Stigmata, End of Days, et al. These films, populated by good-buddy priests, wealthy Satanists, wise nuns, secret Vatican assault groups and think tanks, are uniformly predictable and fraught with logical flaws. Their protagonists are often driven by a need for redemption, and their villains by a lust for transcendence—in sum, their contemplation of the religious impulse and the mysteries that surround it is entirely simplistic. On the face of things, this is not necessarily bad. Formula movies—B-movies—are a Hollywood staple. Indeed, with multiple screenwriters on almost every project (thirty-six of them, it's rumored, worked on the execrable Mission to Mars), an industry aesthetic funded by a marketing sensibility, and the sublimation of character and "story" to special effects and high-concept (an idea best explained by the punch line to an old joke: She's the Pope, he's a chimp—they're cops) . . . With all this in mind, it seems apparent that the modern studio is no longer geared to the making of good movies, but rather to the making of good B-movies. Even going by these standards, few films treating of the Satanic can be said to have achieved any marked degree of competency, let alone B-movie greatness, and fewer yet have made money domestically, though when dumped into the markets of Latin America and Roman Catholic Europe, they generally earn out. It seems odd that such is the case—one would think that the dark and richly complicated imagery of the Church would provide no end of inspiration; but then perhaps the very richness and complexity of the imagery overwhelms the instincts of those associated with these films, imposing upon directors and scripters a sense of creative inadequacy, and thus they neglect the underpinnings needed to construct an entertaining variant of the Oldest Story, the battle between Good and Evil. Or perhaps they fail to understand that Good and Evil are no longer compelling in and of themselves, at least not to contemporary moviegoers, who appear now to require more human and faintly comical expressions of the Ancient Struggle—testimony to this is the fact that of all recent devil flicks, only The Devil's Advocate, which establishes the Big Red Guy as a lawyer, has made a consequential dent domestically.

Be this as it may, the Junior Mints had worked their magic, and with dulled senses and lowered expectations, I was purely ready for some fly-eyed grunge demons to get their drooling, froggy-tongued, baby-liver-scarfing selves scragged by a basketball-playing priest and his hot nun sidekick, with maybe a couple of excellent spew scenes and impalements tossed in for good measure. You see, I love a good devil movie. I was raised Roman Catholic in the South, and despite the fact that most of the priests I'd known were nondescript, lumpish guys who droned out the Mass with all the animation of an Amtrak agent announcing departures, I had always half-believed the Church-sponsored myth that concealed beneath those bulbous robes was the keen-eyed essence of Christ the Killer ready to 187 any punk-ass demon who messed with his boys. There's nothing short of my Aunt Paula's spoonbread that brings back the easy satisfactions of childhood more poignantly than the sight of a backwards-collar-wearing Godboy filing his crucifix down to a point, then jamming it into the thorax of some red-eyed, hairy-pawed Beelzebubba, who thereupon lets out an Ozzy Osborne screech and disintegrates into a swarm of locusts.

The movie started off cool. The Star of Yakob was in the sky, signifying that somebody really together was coming to the planet just like Baby Jesus did, and when Maggie Conroy's scag-shooting sister Jenna (Angela Bettis) shows up out of nowhere and abandons her nine-day-old daughter, Cody (Holliston Coleman), on Maggie's Manhattan apartment floor, it didn't take me long to cop to the fact that Cody was one of God's Chosen, especially when after a few years she goes to making plates spin and lighting hundreds of candles on a altar beneath the Madonna with just the power of her mind and stuff—though Maggie doesn't get it; she thinks Cody's autistic and puts her in a special nun school. Then there's this Eric Stark dude (Rufus Sewell), an ex–child TV star who dresses in black couturier clothing and runs a New Age organization that fronts for the spawn of Hell. Christina Ricci's character—I can't remember her name, but whatever, she ends up getting decapitated in the subway, which was way cool—she tells Maggie that Stark is full-on evil and he wants to turn Cody away from the Good and make her his minion. Then Maggie gets a concussion trying to stop Christina's character from losing her head and begins seeing devils flying around everywhere (they look like the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz). And then Stark shows up married to Maggie's sister and they kidnap Cody, and that was all pretty cool, too…but along about this point I started realizing that the whole thing was seriously messed up. I mean, what was this religion Stark was head of? It had been around since the 16th Century, but it didn't even have a name, and that was weird. And how come all Stark's people are murdering kids born on December 16, 1993? What's the big deal with that specific date? Nobody explained it. Why're all the fakey computer-generated rats swarming around? And why's it that anytime Maggie and Cody are in trouble, except for when she gets kidnapped, some angel looking like a character on that old TV show "Thirty Something" pops up and rescues them? (Note to the scriptwriter: Dude, I hate to tell you, man, but having these angels doing that kinda kills the possibility of suspense, okay…?)

The Junior Mints were wearing off. This had never happened before, but Bless the Child was so corrosively awful, it was eroding the pharmacological effects of the candy. It was big B, Triple A, double D Bad. The Battlefield Earth of devil flicks. None of the characters had an arc. Kim Basinger started out a sad divorcee, and in the end she was happier, I guess, because she had Jimmy Smits in her life—he played the basically irrelevant role of FBI agent John Travis—but she went through no significant transformation, no redemptive process, except for when she died and Cody brought her back to life.

That was another thing. Anytime anything died or came near death, you could be fairly certain Cody or a passing angel would bring it back to life. Gunshot victims, cancer patients, potted plants, pigeons with broken necks. If one accepts the logic of the movie, it's a wonder morticians do any business at all with Cody around. And though Basinger displayed an abundance of misty-eyed pluck and Agent Travis put some bullets into Stark, the agency that played the most crucial part in whupping the Big Red Guy and his crew of yucky sub-demons was (I swear this is true) a group of nuns who engage in a marathon stint of team prayer. As the movie kabanged sputter sputter cough kerchunked to its unnatural end, I sucked up fragments from the bottom of the Junior Mints box, hoped for a flashback, and thought about the future of devil movies. I'd seen a list of upcoming Satanic projects and they all looked like losers, though an as-yet-untitled effort involving a Vatican expedition to the Antarctic that returns with a body frozen in a chunk of ice, who turns out to be You Know Who, had a certain pulpish appeal. Probably the best movie I'd seen recently dealing with the struggle of good versus evil was Jesus' Son, based on Denis Johnson's remarkable short-story collection. The title refers not to any possible offspring of the Son of Man, but to a line from the Velvet Underground song, "Heroin": "…when I'm rushin' on my run, I feel just like Jesus' son…" The film contains no overtly positive reference to the Roman Catholic pantheon; in fact, it seems to regard religion as delusional; yet for all that, it's a classic redemptive tale, following the meandering path of a 70s nobody known only as Fuckhead (Billy Crudup), who finds love and drug addiction with Michelle (Samantha Morton) in a drab midwestern town. Fuckhead and Michelle have good souls, but their mutual habit overwhelms their relationship. After Michelle leaves with an older man for Mexico, Fuckhead sinks to the bottom of his little pond, surviving by means of odd jobs; when he learns that Michelle has surfaced solo in Seattle, he hitchhikes west to join her and they reunite. But smack, once again, uglies up their love scene. One night after a violent argument, Fuckhead returns to their hotel and finds Michelle passed out on the bed. He crawls in beside her, gives her a kiss, and falls asleep. In the morning he discovers a note left by Michelle, which says that she has taken some pills—if he still loves her, he should wake her up. By the time he reads it, of course, Michelle is dead.

Seattle offers even greater depths to which Fuckhead can sink, and, broken-spirited, sink into them he does. Eventually he finds redemption working in a home for people suffering from catastrophic physical impairments, and in a curious trans-voyeuristic bonding with an Amish woman, whom he hears singing inside her house each afternoon as he walks home from work. Fuckhead and the Amish woman never speak. His longing appears to be the sole element of their connection—she never acknowledges his presence until one night when Fuckhead is peeping through her window, she comes to stand with her back to him, trying to block him from her husband's view—while she stands there, Fuckhead reaches up and touches her hair. That simple touch completes the process of redemption, a process composed not of pyrotechnic shocks and grandiose violences and hyper-dramatic plot twists, but of minor tragedies, the sort of unimportant stories that would perhaps warrant an one-inch mention in your local newspaper. Some are fatal, some bloody and absurd, and some are conjunctions of circumstance and an utterly implausible force that seems to have arranged things into an dreamlike order that can be sensed yet not articulated. It is less a plot than a mosaic of incidents that comes to nothing until a man's fingers brush a woman's hair, and then you see the entirety of a life, as though that touch had been a magician's gesture, and you understand the inter-relationship of these incidents: a highway accident; a man stripping the copper tubing from his house to sell for the heroin that will kill him that very night, while out the window he can see his nude ex-wife parasailing along the river; a mid-afternoon party in a run-down farmhouse that leads to lust and murder; a horrific episode of domestic violence that takes an unexpected comic turn. The only nod to the officially religious occurs when—in a delirium—Fuckhead follows a lowlife wearing a fake snakeskin jacket to a laundromat and watches the tattoo of a Sacred Heart on his chest come to hallucinatory life. Yet the feeling you get from watching the film is that you have witnessed a spiritual transformation.

Jesus' Son is, of course, scarcely formulaic, not a B-movie. It is a very good movie, and Crudup's note-perfect incarnation of Fuckhead is assisted by sharp and sometimes brilliant performances by, among others, Will Patton, Holly Hunter, Jack Black, Denis Leary, and Dennis Hopper. Black (High Fidelity), one of the best young character actors around, is especially notable for his imaginative take on Georgie, a pill-popping hospital orderly. The score, a mix of 70s rock classics and incidental music composed by Joe Henry, both energizes and embodies the visuals, and the voiceover, consisting of excerpts from Johnson's spare, poetic prose, does something few voiceovers achieve—it accompanies the film like music and never overexplains.

But the real star of the movie is Cuthrell's screenplay, which remains true to the spirit of Johnson's book and succeeds in conveying what Johnson wanted us to know—that trivial moments of irresolution and intemperance define our selves, and delicate shifts of the world around us align with those moments to contrive our fates, and that merely by persevering we can achieve at least a form of transcendence. It may well be that on some cosmic stage Good and Evil, God and the Devil, are enacting a violent play and our actions are merely glints reflected from their battle glow. But it's more relevant to our times to focus on those brief flashes of being instead of the great identities we suppose have caused them, to seek deliverance from the minutiae of the illusions we inhabit and not from their imagined source. It might be interesting to see a movie that approached the specific ideas of the Satanic and the Divine from this sort of perspective, one that by virtue of the ensuing narrative would inspire, perhaps, a new appreciation of the Oldest Story or contrive a secular metaphysics that led back on some relatively untraveled road to the creatures of myths and the mysteries. Jesus� Son does not quite do this—not self-consciously, at any rate—but it does enough to conjure the possibility, and for now that will have to do.