"WISE BLOOD" is an overlooked jewel.
Southern writer Flannery O'Connor's first novel, "Wise Blood," made it to the big screen in 1979. The John Huston directed, low budget feature was widely praised and then practically forgotten.
O'Connor was a devout Catholic. She was also battling lupus, the sometimes debilitating immune disorder. Both factors may have colored her novel. Huston was a devout atheist. His world view certainly nuanced the tone of the film.
The story concerns a somewhat troubled, perhaps damaged, youth, Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif). Just out of the army and son of a fire and brimstone Pentecostal preacher, Motes is determined to open the first Church Withouth Christ in Taulkinham, Tennessee.
A young Brad Dourif is brilliant as the driven, vexed, Motes. There's not a false note or a wasted frame. His is a journey of spiritual self-exploration, penance and perhaps redemption. O'Connor's curiosity about the southern brand of Pentecostal mind set is riveting on film. Motes is trying to shed the damage of his ferocious religious childhood, but cannot shed his spirituality. He finds he's a Christian in spite of himself.
Supporting actors Harry Dean Stanton, Amy Wright, Ned Beatty, William Hickey and Dan Shor are all spot on.
The frisson between director Huston's disdain for religion and O'Connor's devoutness is a perfect match. The screenplay by brothers Benedict and Michael Fitzgerald does not stray from the core events, tone and ideas of O'Connor's story.
The obviously lower budget production, shot mostly in Macon, Georgia of the late 1970s, does not really detract, even though the novel is set in a somewhat earlier period.
The use of older, rather decayed buildings and locations amidst a more modern setting give a kind of muddy, out-of-time, appeal. A nice visual metaphor to the theme of old fundamentalist religious views in conflict with a more progressive spirituality.
This is a unique film and story. Hard to categorize. For me, it's a darkly comic, decidedly gothic, tale of profound spirituality and humanism. When the shoot was over, Huston said, "I think I've been had."
Criterion's transfer, as usual, is clean and sharp. I thought the color was unusually true and subtle. And the period monaural track crisp and easy on the ear.
The extras are all watchable. The new interviews with Dourif and the writer-producer brothers Fitzgerald are entertaining and informative.
A huge bonus is the rare recording of Flannery O'Connor reading her famous and terrific short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find" is alone probably worth the price of the disc! This is the only known recording of the author reading one of her stories.
There's also a wonderful vintage 1982 "Creativity With Bill Moyers" with director Huston.