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MOVIE REVIEW: Gordon-Levitt proves his acting range in dark 'Hesher'

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Hesher (R)

3 stars out of 4

Take a minute and tally up the number of people who started out as child movie actors and went on to equal or greater success as adults. There's Jodie Foster, Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, Ben Affleck (sort of) and the recently deceased Jackie Cooper.

Making such a transition from TV to film is tougher and that list is even shorter. You've got Leonardo DiCaprio, Jason Bateman and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Coincidentally, DiCaprio and Gordon-Levitt appeared together in last year's multi-Oscar-nominated "Inception."

If you can't quite picture Gordon-Levitt, you're not alone. Remember "Third Rock from the Sun"? That was the biggest of the three TV shows he was in and the one where he acted principally with very seasoned adults.

As the title character in "Hesher," Gordon-Levitt is the grown-up (at least biologically) acting opposite the pre-teen T.J. (Devin Brochu), a young man trying to deal with a recent loss, his depressed, over-medicated father (Rainn Wilson), a loopy grandmother (Piper Laurie) and a bully intent on maiming if not outright killing him.

While tooling around a construction site on his bike, T.J. inadvertently displaces the squatter Hesher from his digs and Hesher is not pleased. Using dynamite to distract an investigating security guard, Hesher insures both he and T.J. will avoid arrest but Hesher isn't the type to let a slighting like this slide.

Shown most of the time shirtless, unwashed and chain-smoking, Hesher sports several crude and obscene homemade tattoos and the surly attitude of a biker trying to work off a weeklong bender. With nothing else to occupy his time, the pyromaniac Hesher shadows T.J. every waking moment and puts him through a psychological wringer.

Although able to rescue T.J. from a humiliating degradation, Hesher abstains, which only adds to T.J.'s gnawing and accelerating angst. The tension escalates even further with the introduction of Nicole (Portman), a down-on-her-luck grocery store clerk who plays a significant role in most unexpected ways to both T.J. and Hesher for the rest of the film.

Some may think -- and others have written -- that the Hesher character is too broad and extreme to be taken as a serious or believable character. He doesn't speak unless he absolutely needs to, has an obvious ax to grind and doesn't give a flying fig about anyone -- including himself. He's lost something or someone very dear to him but not -- in his own severely twisted way -- his sense of honor and dignity.

It takes the total length of the movie for it to become apparent, but Hesher represents our collective unconsciousness. He does and sometimes says things no rational person would dare do in public, or for that matter, in private. At some point we've all been Hesher to a degree yet watching a character as brazen and unflinching as this can be understandably disturbing and oddly cathartic.

All of the stark, unapologetic, in-your-face attitude of the first two acts nearly gets negated when co-writer/director Spencer Susser caves to convention and ends with two scenes that soften both Hesher and the film. Hesher exits doing something far more Hallmark than Gonzo Punk and all of it feels a bit too comfy, calculated and falsely uplifting.

Far from anything that will make him a household name (the movie will be lucky to break even), "Hesher" was the ideal role for Gordon-Levitt to take at this time. In tandem with "Mysterious Skin," "Inception" and the sublime "(500) Days of Summer," it further proves he's got range to burn and can walk that ultra-thin tightrope between mainstream and art house as either a lead or supporting performer.

With some blessed timing and a phenomenal agent, Gordon-Levitt could become the next De Niro, or at least a child actor who grows up to be more than a trivia question. (Wrekin Hill Entertainment)