A bug-eyed young man in an imposing black hat stands on the hood of a rusty car with tailfins, on a street corner in a run-down city. He’s preaching, loudly, to a crowd of scruffy passersby who look like they’ve wandered in from several different decades. The city around them, too, seems adrift in time; is this the early 1950s? Is it the 60s? Or 70s? The only thing for sure is that it’s in the American south, and it’s full of hustlers, hucksters, and street preachers. Something else is odd; the young man declares he’s the founder of a new church, the Church Without Christ, a church where “the blind can’t see, the lame don’t walk, and them’s that dead stay that way.”
This is a recurring image in John Huston‘s 1979 film Wise Blood, a dark, strange, violent, funny movie based on the 1952 novel by Flannery O’Connor. (Which is equally dark, strange, violent, and funny.) Never a box-office success, Wise Blood has just gotten its first DVD release in the U.S. thanks to the Criterion Collection.
Wise Blood tells the story of Hazel Motes (played intensely by Brad Dourif), a young man who comes home from a war (in the film’s jumbled-up world, it could be WWII, or it could be Vietnam) and ends up in the city of Taulkinham. The grandson of a fire-and-brimstone preacher, he says he doesn’t believe in anything at all, becoming furious at a taxi driver who mistakes him for a preacher (while driving Motes to the house of a local prostitute).
Taking his (anti?)message to the streets, Motes gets tangled up with a blind street preacher (Harry Dean Stanton) who turns out to be a fake in more ways than one, and the preacher’s daughter (Amy Wright), who turns out to be a lot less pure than her name, “Sabbath Lily,” might suggest. He’s also pestered by a simple-minded teenager named Enoch Emery (Dan Shor), who seems to be the only person in town who buys into the Church Without Christ’s message whole-heartedly. Or maybe he’s just saying that because he so desperately needs a friend.
Huston’s adaptation sticks very close to O’Connor’s original novel, and while it loses her vivid, usually hilarious descriptions, it keeps her twisted southern dialogue and off-the-wall situations. Enoch Emory presents Hazel and Sabbath Lily with a stolen shrunken mummy, which Lily cradles like a baby; a guitar-playing street preacher (Ned Beatty) tries to steal Hazel’s crowd by starting a competing “Church of Christ without Christ” (note the subtle name difference), complete with a Hazel Motes lookalike, but which requires a dollar for salvation. And Hazel continues to defend his broken-down car to anybody and everybody by declaring, “No man with a good car needs to be justified!” when it’s plain to everybody but him, he doesn’t HAVE a good car. Like most of the characters in Wise Blood, Motes’ grasp on reality is loose at best.
I’ve seen more than one review call Wise Blood‘s visuals and art direction “ugly,” even “repulsive.” I disagree. It’s dirty, stark, raw, but incredibly rich and gothic. (Most of it was shot in Macon, Georgia, a medium-sized city that was probably O’Connor’s actual model for Taulkinham.) Huston uses long takes and wide angles, hanging back with the camera as his characters rant and rage and wrestle with their destinies, not to mention each other.
Every performance in this film is excellent, whether it’s a major or minor character. Dourif’s Hazel Motes looks about two seconds away from exploding into (anti-)righteous rage at any given moment. Wright’s Sabbath Lily goes from coy to lusty to crazily obsessive, sometimes in a single scene. Mary Nell Santacroce is brilliant during the film’s lengthy coda as Motes’ baffled but tenderhearted landlady, Mrs. Flood. The uniformly strong performances are one reason Wise Blood works as well as it does. Every scene is so strange and every line of dialogue so nuanced and twisted, that a weak performance would’ve brought the whole movie crashing down.
As it is, the entire film is a high-wire act. The novel was written by a very devout Catholic; the movie was directed by a determined atheist. And yet their work meshes beautifully, leaving the viewer to decide if Hazel Motes’ final, brutal fate (warning: O’Connor’s characters rarely meet happy endings) is salvation or insanity.
The DVD is typically excellent Criterion quality. There are new interviews with Dourif, and screenwriters Benedict and Michael Fitzgerald (turns out their father was O’Connor’s literary agent; and Flannery herself was sometimes their babysitter when they were kids), along with a few other extras like a 1982 interview with Huston and an extremely rare audio recording of Flannery O’Connor reading her short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” There’s also the theatrical trailer, which picks out some of the funnier scenes and corny music cues to make the whole movie look like a screwball counter-culture comedy, with no hint of the darkness, violence, and ambiguity lurking in it.