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Wise Blood

The Criterion Collection // R // May 12, 2009
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Phil Bacharach | posted June 2, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

Wise Blood is a strange and strangely hypnotic tale of a strange young man's journey for spiritual salvation. Oh, did I mention that it's strange? Adapting Flannery O'Connor's acclaimed novel, director John Huston did a fine job preserving the author's quirky humor and oddball Southern characters, but the 1979 film is also thematically oblique and inconsistent in tone. The result is a fascinating, albeit flawed, motion picture.

There's no denying that Brad Dourif is mesmerizing as Hazel Motes, an ex-soldier who returns home from the war. While Huston takes pains to avoid specifying a time period, the cars and other trappings onscreen would lead audiences to believe Hazel is coming back from Vietnam. Finding his rural Southern home abandoned and in ruins, the wild-eyed young man dons a wide-brimmed preacher's hat and heads to the nearby city of Taulkinham to, as he says, do things he's never done before.

Among other things, that includes sex with a prostitute he learns about on the bathroom wall of the bus station. More important, however, it means the humorless, tightly wound man sets himself up as a street-corner preacher extolling the gospel of his own church "where the blind don't see, the lame don't walk and the dead stay that way!" He christens it the Church of Truth Without Christ. Seemingly in a state of perpetual anger, Hazel spits out fiery rhetoric that spins on the sole presumption that Jesus was no messiah. "I ain't saying he wasn't crucified," Hazel tells anyone within earshot, "but I'm saying it wasn't for you!"

Eccentric folks turn out to be as ubiquitous as grits in Mississippi. Hazel meets another preacher, Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton), who has feigned blindness to give himself credibility. Asa's homely nymphet of a daughter, Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright), takes one look at hawk-nosed, rail-thin Hazel and licks her chops. Hazel even attracts his own disciple, of sorts, in Enoch (Dan Shor), a dopey young man obsessed with a shrunken mummy on display in a museum.

Hazel doth protest too much. His refusal to accept Jesus as his savior is reminiscent of a recalcitrant child insisting he hates broccoli. Throughout his misadventures in Taulkinham, he is haunted by remembrances of his grandfather, played by Huston himself, a fire-and-brimstone minister who did his preaching at tent revivals.

Hazel's struggle of faith reaches critical mass when a charlatan named Hoover Shoates (Ned Beatty) asks Hazel to go into business with him in hopes of turning his Church of Truth Without Christ into a moneymaker. Outraged, Hazel rebuffs the offer. Shoates then finds another dime-store prophet (William Hickey), dressing him up to resemble Hazel and start preaching the slightly tweaked Church of Christ Without Christ.

Huston, who was 72 when he shot Wise Blood, never shied away from tackling film versions of challenging literature, be it The Red Badge of Courage or Moby Dick, but results were usually mixed. Wise Blood is no exception. Screenwriting brothers Michael and Benedict Fitzgerald, whose father had been O'Connor's literary executor, get many of the externals correct, but their script loses the poetry of that seriocomic 1952 novel. Characterizations border on the cartoonish, which doesn't help when the narrative shifts into murkier waters.

The filmmakers certainly nail much of O'Connor's satire. There is some impish fun in Huston's lampooning of the Deep South -- the director's first name is misspelled "Jhon" in the opening credits -- as well the skewering of Bible-toting profiteers (although it's worth noting that both are pretty easy targets for ridicule). Especially rewarding is the relationship between Hazel the zealot and Lily Sabbath the hot-to-trot. Her seduction of the preoccupied, anti-gospel preacher is wickedly funny. Huston follows that with a sharp visual punch line where the woman cradles Enoch's shrunken mummy, recalling images of the Madonna and Child. Dourif and Wright, like the entire cast, are terrific.

And yet Wise Blood ultimately adds up to something less than its separately impressive parts. The movie feels vaguely schizophrenic, perhaps the inevitable result of Huston, an atheist, adapting the work of a devout Catholic who saw her novel as Christian allegory. Such nebulousness is only augmented by Alex North's heavy-handed musical score, which flits from wistful variations of "Tennessee Waltz" to mawkish comic stylings.


The Video:

Criterion provides a typically first-rate picture. Digitally remastered and enhanced for 16x9 displays, the print is excellent, free from the vestiges of age. Details are strong, colors well-saturated. Aspect ratio is 1.78:1.

The Audio:

The mono audio track is surprisingly decent - sharp, clear sound not hampered by distortion or drop-out.


The best of the supplemental material are three interviews. Dourif (13:43) offers fascinating anecdotes about how he and Huston differed about the film's ending. Benedict Fitzgerald (13:28) delves into the making of the movie while Michael Fitzgerald (20:19), his brother and co-writer, discusses his family's close relationship with Flannery O'Connor.

In a 1982 episode of PBS' Creativity with Bill Moyers, the journalist visits with Huston about the creative process. The interview is more facile and patronizing than one would expect from Moyers, but it's interesting to see Huston on the set of Annie (not one of his better moments) and his suggestion that "an actor without an ego is like a virgin without a petticoat."

O'Connor fans will get a kick out of a rare audio recording of the writer reading her famed short story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." The audio was recorded at Vanderbilt University in 1959.

Included is an insightful five-page written essay by Francine Prose, "A Matter of Life and Death." Rounding things out is a theatrical trailer.

Final Thoughts:

There is much to admire about Wise Blood, particularly Brad Dourif's bravura performance, a stellar supporting cast and darkly comic scenes sharp enough to draw blood. But the dichotomy between John Huston vision and that of the source material by Flannery O'Connor is evident when the tale veers into a serious-minded meditation on faith and redemption. It doesn't entirely gel, but Wise Blood's sheer weirdness makes for compelling viewing.

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