Criterion // 1979 // 106 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // May 12th, 2009
"My church is the Church Without Christ. I am a member and preacher to that church, where the blind don't see and the lame don't walk, and what's dead, stays that way." -- Hazel Motes
John Huston directed nearly four dozen films during his career. While remembered fondly for classics such as The African Queen and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and less so for behemoths like The Bible and The Kremlin Letter, his resumé is sprinkled with a number of small, personal projects, some of which flew under the radar and are ripe for rediscovery. Fat City is one such film, its bare-bones DVD long out of print. Wise Blood, Huston's take on Flannery O'Connor's novel, is another modest but worthy work, saved now from obscurity with a nice Criterion package.
Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif, Spontaneous Combustion) gets out of the army, trades his uniform for a blue suit and a black hat, and sets out to "do some things I ain't never done before." First, he's going to Taulkinham, a place where he knows no one.
Looking at his outfit, people start mistaking Hazel for a preacher. He insists otherwise: "I'm not a preacher." Hazel's grandfather was a preacher, and the young man has some unpleasant memories about tent revivals.
He meets Enoch Emery (Dan Shor, Strange Behavior), an odd and lonely teen ager who claims he has "wise blood" -- the ability to know about things that he has no way to know about, kind of a sixth sense -- "Now, I ain't saying I'm a prophet, no it ain't like that, but it's like that." Hazel is not that interested in the weird Enoch, but he does become fascinated with Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton, Two-Lane Blacktop, a street preacher, and his daughter, Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright, The Accidental Tourist). He scoffs at Asa, who claims to have blinded himself with lime in the name of Jesus, but when Hazel starts preaching about a church without Christ, Asa sees potential. Hazel, however, is more interested in the preacher's daughter, but the plain young Sabbath Lily is not as innocent as she seems.
Hazell starts preaching his own church, the Church Without Christ, and people are interested but not terribly receptive. A huksterer, Onnie Jay Holy (Ned Beatty, Nashville), sees Hazel and tries to help make his performance more audience appealing and more of a money maker, but Hazel wants no part of him.
With the increasingly bizarre Enoch, the predatory Asa Hawk and Sabbath Lily, and Onnie Jay Holy trying to capitalize on Hazel's idea, things start to get a little out of hand for the reluctant preacher. When a cop stops him in his beloved car for driving without a license, it begins a terrible downward spiral that leads Hazel into ways of redemption that no one saw coming.
In a print essay accompanying Criterion's release of Wise Blood, Francine Prose notes about John Huston, "No other filmmaker had such an impressive and consistent history of making extraordinary movies from books that would have seemed difficult -- if not impossible -- to translate into film." What's notable about many of the adaptations Huston directed is their fidelity to the source material. Huston clearly respects the work, and his films often come across as collaborations between the director and author -- even when the author is Rudyard Kipling, James Joyce, or someone else long gone.
The onscreen credit calls this film Jhon Huston's Wise Blood -- Huston's name misspelled throughout the credits -- but there's no mistaking that this is Flannery O'Connor's work we're seeing. Like Huston, O'Connor told stories in which ideas and personalities overshadowed events. It's not what happens that holds our interest so much as the thoughts and actions that lead up to what happens. Certainly this is true of Wise Blood, wherein a cursory plot outline -- a disaffected young man decides to start his own church without God -- barely gives you an idea what to expect.
Adapted by brothers Benedict and Michael Fitzgerald, Wise Blood captures the flavor and essence of O'Connor's 1952 novel, retaining much of her unique language.
Wise Blood is not an easy film to pigeon hole. A comedy of aberrations about outcast, abominable people, with skewed themes of religion and redemption, the film is extremely funny but disquieting, with the irony and cynicism sometimes overpowering. Huston tells the story in a straightforward manner that is true to the book and makes no effort to make presentable O'Connor's "Southern grotesques," the bizarre characters that inhabit all her books and stories.
Hazel, Enoch, Asa, and Sabbath Lily, the main characters, are on the fringes of society and ultimately isolated from it. Huston shoots them -- and everyone who interacts with them -- so they are clearly separated from the rest of the world. Although the film is set in the late '70s, when it was made, the characters' clothing is anachronistic -- Depression-era hobo rags for Asa and Sabbath Lily, an uncomfortable mid-'60's look for Enoch, and Hazel's blue suit and wide brimmed black hat, the archetypical and timeless street preacher uniform. Hazel's car is a '50's era Ford Fairlane, which he swears by as both a ride and a mantra ("No man with a good car needs to be justified") even as the rest of the world is driving up-to-date vehicles. They live in squalid rooms with no modern amenities like TVs or air conditioners. Even Hazel's army service seems from another era -- WW2 would make more sense than the post-Viet Nam army of the time.
While Huston draws us into this odd, alternate world, it's always as an observer. We are ultimately no different than the curious crowds that gather to hear Hazel preach of his Church Without Christ, "The church that the blood of Jesus don't foul with redemption." Huston knows we can only be observers; these are not people you will find familiar or relatable.
As the outsider characters, we have four outsider actors turning in some of the best work of their careers.
Brad Dourif is outstanding as the half-crazed, anti-evangelist Hazel. Dourif has made a career out of playing weird -- from his debut as Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, through his iconic voice work as Chucky in Child's Play and its myriad sequels, to his role in HBO's lamented Deadwood, Dourif is the go-to guy for odd. Hazel Motes might be Dourif at his most weird, because we don't readily see Hazel's motivation. Dourif pushes this engine with pure intensity, never adding an artificial humanity to the character. It's a bravely unsympathetic portrayal with Dourif at the top of his game.
Dan Shor made some interesting indies in the early '80s, including Strangers Kiss and Mike's Murder, but he is best remembered for TRON and as Billy the Kid in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. A talented and charismatic actor, he never really achieved that "next level" of success, and watching him in Wise Blood, you have to wonder why. Shor brings a sly helping of pathos to the annoying Enoch, playing up the character's boyish vulnerability.
Like Shor, Amy Wright should have had a bigger career in films, though she has done lots of stage work. She is just amazing as scheming teen ager Sabbath Lily -- Wright was near 30 when she made the film -- holding her own in scenes with the great Harry Dean Stanton. In his all-too-brief role of small-time con man Onnie Jay Holy, Ned Beatty gives us another memorable characterization.
As we've come to expect, Criterion does its usual bang-up job with the technical aspects of this disc. The picture looks great, and the mono audio track has been remastered and is clean and distortion-free.
We get a handful of extras, starting with recent interviews with Brad Dourif and writers Benedict and Michael Fitzgerald. The Fitzgerald brothers grew up with Flannery O'Connor as a family friend; she baby sat them, and their mother, Sally (who also served as costume designer and set decorator on Wise Blood) published a book of letters from O'Connor. Michael Fitzgerald initiated the film project, he's got some terrific stories about working with Huston.
In addition to the interviews, we get a rare audio recording of O'Connor reading her story "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" at Vanderbilt University in 1959. This is one of the few recordings of O'Connor, so it's a particular treat for fans of her work. An episode of a Bill Moyers program, Creativity, from 1982, gives us Huston discussing his work and subjects such as "God" and "ego." Huston's interviews are always insightful and fun to watch, and this one is no exception. A trailer rounds out the DVD supplements. There is also a 14-page booklet that includes the Francine Prose essay, "A Matter of Life and Death."
It's a nice package, though this single-disc set is a little light for the price -- $39.95, what Criterion usually charges for its double disc editions (available for much less at both Amazon and the Criterion store). Also, much as I enjoyed all the supplements, only the interviews and the essay were specific to the film.
Flannery O'Connor's writing is not really considered film-friendly, and given her output and renown, there are few adaptations of her work. A lot of this has to do with the nature of her writing -- bitter, cynical, with few, if any, likable characters. Her writing is so flavorful and distinctive, and her descriptions -- of people, places, and events, and the ideas that motivate her characters -- so remarkable, that short of preserving it with something awkward like a narrator, you are unquestionably going to lose something in the translation from print to film.
On its own terms, Wise Blood is a terrific movie -- savagely funny and original -- and the film is true to its source and retains much of O'Connor's prose. Unfortunately, by removing O'Connor's narration and telling the story straight, a lot gets lost. We're never really clear on a lot of the characters' motivations, particularly Enoch and Hazel. As played by Dourif -- and very well and correctly, by the way -- Hazel is impenetrable. He has his own reasons for doing what he does, but his words and expressions betray little. Enoch works off his own, personal logic, which we know is rooted in his belief about his "wise blood" as well as in his loneliness, but it's a shame we don't get more insight into his thoughts. Quite honestly, a commentary filling in some of what was left out from the book would have added a lot to the viewing experience.
If you've read the book, you'll be more inclined to see Wise Blood as a near-perfect adaptation. If you're coming in without prior knowledge, the film might leave you a little cold. It's a noble effort, and probably the best that could be done with the material, but I can understand some people taking this as little more than a quirky comedy about Southern preachers.
Whatever reservations I have, the positives far outweigh the negatives here. Fans of Huston, O'Connor, or the actors will want to grab this one; for everyone else, it's at least worth a rental.
Review content copyright © 2009 Tom Becker; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 1979
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Archival Audio
* TV Episode
* The Flannery O'Connor Repository