Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Wise Blood (1979)

At first glance, John Huston would seem to be a problematic choice to adapt Flannery O'Connor's novel WISE BLOOD. On one hand, the grotesque story of a young hillbilly "preacher" named Hazel Motes who tries to begin a "Church Without Christ" might seem good material for a director who'd always had an instinctive feel for oddballs. On the other hand, O'Connor's vision wasn't merely grotesque, it was, as she famously put it, "Christ-haunted." Her vision was dark and funny, yes, but O'Connor believed furiously in heaven and hell. Huston--the director of masterpieces like THE MALTESE FALCON and THE ASPHALT JUNGLE--was an atheist. How could an unbelieving, hard drinking, globetrotting, hairy-chested womanizer like Huston adapt the twisted vision of a Jesus-obsessed, lupus-stricken, farmer's daughter who once said that her life had been lived mainly "between the back door and the chicken coop"?

That question can only be answered by watching Huston's remarkable adaption of WISE BLOOD. The director always had an excellent eye for the best parts of a novel, and his unfussy shooting style seemed--when he was at his best--to do exactly what was needed and no more. O'Connor must have posed a particular challenge, though. Her story centers around the disturbing figure of Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif) and his quest to blaspheme his way into unbelief, but Motes is also surrounded by gallery of freaks and nutcases. There's the con man Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton) posing as a blind man, his nympho daughter Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright), and a psycho named Enoch Emery who steals a small mummified corpse from a museum and then dresses up in a Gorilla suit. With this kind of material, it's difficult not to spiral into sheer madness.

Huston manages to embrace the story without letting it get away from him. The final twenty minutes or so of this film have a quiet, terrible power. They're shocking, but Huston doesn't really play them for shocks. He simply goes all the way with Hazel Motes, an objective observer to the man's passions and foibles, which is the hallmark of any great John Huston movie. He builds this film on the fanatical central performance by Brad Dourif. Best known to most people as the stuttering Billy in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST (though he also served as the voice of Chucky in the CHILD'S PLAY series), Dourif was an inspired choice for this role. He gives Motes a rawboned restlessness, and he seems to instinctively grasp that the man is tormented, as O'Connor wrote, by the ragged figure of Christ in the back of his mind. For much of the film, his sky blue eyes are wild with that torment. Keep that observation in mind when you get to the end of the film. Eyes, and their function and failure, are vital here.

WISE BLOOD doesn't have the classic perfection of some of Huston's best work. The film's cinematography (by Gerry Fisher) is flat, and I wish the filmmakers had been able to shoot the film in period detail. O'Connor's novel was released in 1952, and there's something disconcerting about seeing it unfold in 1979. I mean, were kids still lining up to see a guy in a gorilla suit in 79? Hadn't they already moved onto Wookies at that point?

Still, these quibbles aside, WISE BLOOD is one hell of an odd movie, based on one hell of an odd book--which makes for a fascinating piece of cinema.


Flannery O'Connor might be, pound for pound, my favorite writer. She's certainly one of the most original literary talents that this country's ever produced. WISE BLOOD is the better of her two novels, but her most indispensable work is THE COMPLETE STORIES, a funny, terrifying, and masterfully wrought work of art. She's the poet laureate of fanatics and Jesus Freaks.

There's a lot of stuff on the web about O'Connor, but the best site is Comforts of Home: The Flannery O'Connor Repository

Finally, a quick word about the Criterion Collection DVD of the film. This is a terrific package, featuring interviews with Dourif and the screenwriters. It also contains an insightful essay by Francine Prose and an astounding audio recording--the only one in existence--of O'Connor giving a reading of "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" at Vanderbilt University in 1959. It should also be noted that the Criterion DVD has the best picture quality of this movie that I've seen. (It also has a gorgeous package. Click here to take a look).

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