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In this acclaimed adaptation of the first novel by legendary Southern writer Flannery O’Connor, John Huston brings to life a world of vivid, poetic American eccentricity. Brad Dourif, in an impassioned performance, is Hazel Motes, who, fresh out of the army, attempts to open the first Church Without Christ in the small town of Taulkinham. Populated with inspired performances that seem to spring right from O’Connor’s pages, Huston’s Wise Blood is an incisive portrait of spirituality and evangelicalism, as well as a faithful, loving evocation of one writer’s vision.
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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.
As the beginning credits roll we are treated to a series of beautiful black and white photographs which serve as evocations of an older America but one that in some ways still exists and lives on in the old run-down parts of town and in the old run-down neighborhoods even as a new America tries to re-invent itself and erase its ties to its sin-soaked past. Wise Blood is about American history and identity in a time of national crisis, but Huston does not emphasize the Vietnam War as the source of this crisis, rather he underplays it and instead chooses to focus simply on a lack of a substantive vision (religious, artistic, or otherwise) to lend coherence to the chaos that is America not just in the seventies but in all times and places.
To a certain extent this adaptation does feel like a loyal adaptation in so far as the characters are all lonely outcasts prey to visions and dreams that promise salvation but only bring about further destruction, and so they are all, despite their efforts, always on the verge of mental and spiritual collapse. This is certainly a vision of life that is everywhere present in William Faulkner and Nathaniel West and Tennessee Williams and Flannery O'Connor and Truman Capote and in countless other Southern writer's fictions, but its also the vision of many a writer not from the South. Huston was a big fan of Irish literature and it is also the vision of Joyce whose "The Dead' was adapted by Huston in 1987, and Beckett, as well as English writer Malcolm Lowry whose Under the Volcano was adapted by Huston in 1984. Huston is interested in the specifics of American history and identity but the film he creates addresses not just an American but a world-wide malaise.
Brad Dourif does a tremendous job as Hazel Motes. He plays Hazel as a tortured and lost soul desperately trying to free himself from America's long history of evangelical chicanery (Vietnam being just one example of something America has done using religion as a rationale). Hazel believes not in Jesus which only clouds peoples thinking and fools them into believing things they would be better off not believing, but in science which allows for a clear view of both the past and the future. But Hazel just can't get his preacher father or other preacher figures (one of which is played by Harry Dean Stanton and another by Ned Beatty) out of his mind or off of his conscious, as it were, for he's got a mighty guilty conscious even though he knows America's sins are not his own. He can't stand the superstition of religion and the way men use it to manipulate other men and yet it seems like everyone is either desperate to preach or deperate to be preached to if only to assuage the sense of being alone and lost.
Hazel wants only to believe in material reality and tangible things like his old car which he thinks is all a man needs to live his life, but he just can't altogether shake the pull of the religious life which has the power (or at least offers the promise) to lure and transport the soul and not just the material body. In the end Hazel Motes becomes not a preacher but an otherworldy saint who has rejected the world and all ties to it. Whether this is a personal failure or a triumph is up to the viewer to decide.
While it might not match the majesty of the novel, what possibly could?
Hazel Motes is an angry SOB who is determined to prove to the world that Jesus Christ is a sham. More than that, he's out to destroy anyone who claims that Christ is indeed the Way, the Truth and the Life; he has all the maniacal zeal of a debauched decadent damning himself into sainthood.
There are frequent flashbacks to Hazel's childhood, sitting in backwoods barns and hearing about hellfire and damnation from a tall, ugly, and sinister Pentecostal preacher played by none other than director John Huston. This man was Mote's Grandfather and he was so terrifying that in one scene young Hazel urinates all over the place.
He encounters all manner of evil and corruption as he bashes heads trying to become *the* only preacher in the South (not likely). Encountering frauds, tricksters, and money hungry snake oil salesmen, the worst is perhaps Ned Beatty and his companion Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton). Not only do they plagiarize Hazel's demented sermons, given on the tops of cars and random streetcorners, they dare to do so for money, which really pisses Hazel off. And Brad Dourif playing Hazel Motes--well, you wouldn't want to piss either of them off.
In reality, behind his Protestant-atheist disguise, this man is a "Jesus Hog" as the daughter of the "Blind Preacher" calls him, and a penitent in the making. Even his treatment of his insane, monkey suit donning young friend is only another manifestation of Catholicism's burning flame drawing him near like a demented moth. And he crashes on that flame, quite badly. This is recommended for anyone who still concernes themselves with O' Connor's work and that raggedy, shadowy beggar who lurks in the trees and everywhere else. Really sick and really pure.