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Hollywood has always taken a play-safe attitude to religion, in the desire to please as wide an audience as possible. Only the rise of independent productions in the 1950s made possible mainstream pictures with disturbing or controversial religious themes, as with Davis Grubb's Night of the Hunter. Acclaimed author Flannery O'Connor wrote Wise Blood in 1952. Her tale of the street preacher Hazel Motes was considered as un-filmable as her short stories about other southern "grotesques", until the keepers of her estate brought a script to John Huston. The movie was made quickly and for very little money.
Wise Blood (1979) does justice to O'Connor's mysterious, quirky examination of Bible Belt mania. Sustained by Huston's usual impish delight at the irrationality of human nature, the Impeccably cast and brilliantly acted film seems to be happening in an alternate universe of frauds and heretics.
Ex-serviceman Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif) returns from war to find his family home an empty ruin. A haunted man with a zealot's concentration, Motes exchanges his uniform for a preacher's suit and hat, although he vehemently denies any such connection. Haunted by memories of his grandfather, a fire & brimstone revivalist (John Huston), Hazel seems consumed by the desire to both escape and embrace God. Always belligerent, he clashes with street-corner preachers and conmen. Hazel is offended by the shameless pamphleteering of the blind prophet Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton), yet is both attracted to and repelled by Hawks' flirtatious daughter, Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright). Hazel starts his own sidewalk sect, "The church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified". His incoherent speeches claim that Jesus is a fraud, that mankind hasn't sinned and doesn't need to be redeemed; yet his hysterical tone indicates a believer trying desperately to deny his own beliefs. Slick conman Hoover Shoates (Ned Beatty) attracts an audience for Hazel's rants and wants to go into business with him. Hazel is of course outraged.
Nothing in Wise Blood is predictable. Hazel can't rid himself of Enoch Emory (Dan Shor), a homeless yokel desperate for companionship and obsessed by a diminutive, shriveled mummy in a local museum. Motes buys a pathetic junker of a car and proceeds to praise it as the measure of his worth: "Nobody with a good car needs to be justified." Sabbath Lily sets her cap for Hazel, asking her daddy not to interfere. Enoch Emory steals the museum mummy to serve as Motes' "New Jesus"; the boy then fixates on a gorilla suit worn by a man promoting a matinee movie attraction called "Gonga, Monarch of the Jungle". Hoover Shoates creates his own "false prophet", a feeble assistant dressed identically to Hazel, and uses him to lure away the curbside congregation of The Church of Truth without Christ.
Wise Blood is a bizarre mix of rage, guilt and warped faith, but it is not at all blasphemous. O'Connor, a devout Catholic, targets the lunatic excesses of Bible Belt Evangelicals, where self-styled prophets compete for sidewalk space. We're confronted with unexpected inversions of religious imagery, as when Sabbath Lily appears at Hazel's door holding the museum mummy, pretending to be the Virgin Mary. The scene's purpose is not subversion: Hazel immediately attacks Lily's joke as an abomination. Later on, Hazel will commit a serious crime and lose his precious car. To pay for his sins, he then performs acts of self-mutilation associated with the most extreme religious fanatics.
Some of the perplexing dialogue comes across as comedy writing, or lies on the surface begging further interpretation. But the story's strange inventory of material "things" -- Hazel's blue suit and preacher's hat, his all-important car, the withered mummy, the gorilla suit -- are highly cinematic. Critics sometimes fault John Huston for his literal approach to great novels, complaining that he illustrates their basic outlines without communicating their essence: Moby Dick is cited as a prime example. In reality, Huston often takes on projects other director's wouldn't touch. Difficult pictures like Freud and Under the Volcano deal with interior themes difficult to visualize -- but have a strong central character. When Huston's actors are up to the task, the movies thrive.
Brad Dourif (Dune, Ragtime) keeps Hazel Motes focused on his personal crusade. Motes is so keyed up, he can barely communicate with people. We can't tell if the perpetual strained, pained expression on his face is inner- or outer- directed. The film's other "grotesques" are equally unforgettable. Harry Dean Stanton's Asa Hawks is a streetwise sharpie with his own history of failure. As Sabbath Lily, Amy Wright (The Accidental Tourist, Inside Moves) is a decidedly strange temptation in Hazel's path: she wears a crown of may flowers to seduce him, and still can't get his attention. Dan Shor's Enoch Emory is another young man adrift and yearning, dismissed as feeble minded by all he meets; it's too bad that Hazel isn't looking for disciples.
Wise Blood is yet another idiosyncratic late-career John Huston movie to stand alongside Under the Volcano and Fat City. The director would devote his time to a labor of love like this one, and then take on a bloated whale like Annie presumably as a path to a hefty payday. Released by New Line, Wise Blood came and went like a flash, leaving little more than a wake of positive reviews. It's a genuine original, shot through with Huston's knack for quirky characterizations. Flannery O'Connor's cryptic contradictions align well with Huston's dark humor: when a prospective landlady asks whether Hazel Motes' flaky "Church without Jesus Christ" is Protestant, or ..... foreign, Hazel is quick to assure her that it's definitely Protestant.
Criterion's DVD of Wise Blood presents this unusual film in a flawless enhanced transfer with very clear audio. Alex North's soundtrack makes prominent use of the standard "The Tennessee Waltz".
Disc producer Karen Stetler has lined up key source interviews to accompany the feature. Brad Dourif explains that he auditioned well for what would become his defining role but got it only when Tommy Lee Jones proved unavailable. Writer Benedict Fitzgerald and writer-producer Michael Fitzgerald explain their association with the famous author (who died in 1964) and their efforts to faithfully interpret the novel for the screen. John Huston is represented by a cursory career overview on a 1982 TV installment of Creativity with Bill Moyers. Flannery O'Connor reads her short story A Good Man is Hard to Find in a rare audio recording from 1959.
The original trailer tries to sell Wise Blood as a wacky comedy. Author Francine Prose contributes a knowledgeable essay to the disc's insert booklet.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Wise Blood rates:
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