It’s not clear which war Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif) is returning from at the start of John Huston’s 1979 adaptation of the Flannery O’Connor novel; in any case, he returns from it in a steam train before stepping into the 1960s van of a driver he has hitch-hiked a lift from; before you know it, he’s in late 1970s Macon, in the southern United States. The film’s narrative time-frame isn’t any longer than about 18 months.
Goof, low-budget compromise or deliberate provocation? Nothing about this extraordinarily memorable film fits into standard-issue expectations, but the director toys with us endlessly by telling the tale in a very straightforward manner, in spite of the many questions raised by the locations, the dialogue, the actions and the scoring. Wise Blood is one of the key films that evolved art-house movies into the independent cinema of the 1980s and beyond, and the fact that it reads so prosaically is a testament to the canniness of its approach.
Motes begins his return to America a bitter war veteran; he tells a store-owner that the reason he doesn’t wear a purple heart is because he doesn’t want anyone to know where he was wounded. But forget Lady Chatterly (Motes proves himself to have no problem bedding women); it’s the characters faith – in anything – that seems to have been the casualty of his war.
Back in the bible-belt, walking away from an eviscerated home and a dead family, Motes sets off for the nearest city. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do, just that they’ll be ‘things I’ve never done before’. Mistaken often for a preacher, he decides to become one, and sets up The Church Of Christ Without Christ, a vague and proto-atheist ethos designed to liberate his flock from what Motes sees as the contemptible yoke of organised religion.
It’s a small flock: the very Tom Hulce-like Dan Shor is Enoch Emory, the persistent and unwanted acolyte who works in the zoo so he can hurl insults at the caged monkeys that he seems to hate so much; Sabbath Lily, the licentious daughter of a street-preacher (Harry Dean Stanton), determined to lure Motes into bed and marriage; Hoover Shoates (Ned Beatty), the religious con-man whom Motes spurns when he tries to enlist him for a new scam, and who steals Motes’ ‘act’ with a street-bum accomplice (William Hickey).
People don’t meet or interact in Wise Blood – they abrade and collide; the scenes and the dialogue do likewise. Nonetheless, it remains a stubbornly simple story, and never lets the viewer drop into ‘art house’ viewing mode.
Using Huston’s classic storytelling acumen to provoke and probe, Wise Blood is perverse in every sense – a deeply Catholic tale of redemption, it was filmed by John Huston as an atheistic diatribe (the interviews in the extras reveal that Huston didn’t really see the hidden message in the story until the film was practically in the can). There aren’t many stories out there that could effectively convey two such disparate meanings and retain a core of sincerity.
A modern Saul, the atheist Motes is haunted by his love of the God he hates; all the characters that surround him, many dressed in the accoutrements of religious fervour, are fakes, charlatans and hedonists; yet at first viewing that set-up seems to be reversed…
Most of the characters are empty and faithless except for Motes, who starts preaching on the streets even before he knows what his own beliefs are. False gods and self-denial are everywhere: Emory’s hatred of monkeys is reversed as he’s entranced by a travelling vaudeville act with a man in a monkey-suit and decides to steal and wear the suit all over town, looking to become what he apparently hated; Motes’ faith in his beat-up old car is insane, as it can practically start and is leaking water and petrol everywhere; Sabbath’s belief that Motes is ‘marrying material’ is ill-judged both in theory and practice; Motes’ wish to spiritually confront the preacher (and his secret wish to be ‘saved’ by him) is disappointed when he finds his ‘opponent’ is neither blind nor religious. From the minutia to the major themes, echoes of disappointed faith pervade the film.
Huston regarded Wise Blood as a black comedy, and it plays very well at that level. The first-class performances of Brad Dourif and the company of professional actors is delightfully off-set by local people hired for walk-on parts: the prostitute that Motes sets up with early on was in fact the town prostitute; the sheriff who pulls Motes over as he tries to escape the city was in fact the sherriff of Macon. This is the kind of local colour that added so much to Deliverance and Slingblade, and it all works.
But it’s a film without a target audience, going where it will in a very disciplined manner. Lauded at Cannes, a critical hit but a box-office curiosity, Wise Blood is too diverting, entertaining and thought-provoking to ignore, particularly in the current climate of increasingly militant atheism. If that isn’t enough, it’s beautifully directed and shot (by Gerry Fisher) and has the last score written by the legendary Alex North, who went out on a high note.
Extras Four excellent interviews comprise the extras on this release: Brad Dourif, screenwriters and producers Benedict and Michael Fitzgerald and actress Amy Wright all look back on the film and its inception. The interviews are insightful, of decent length, well-edited and a worthwhile adjunct to the movie.
Film:Extras: Wise Blood will be released on the 2nd of March.
Brad Dourif discussed Wise Blood a little with us during our interview with him last year.