Director: John Huston
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists
The Deep South of the USA, the 1950s. Hazel Motes is discharged from the Army and returns to his family home, which he finds abandoned and in ruin. Traveling to Taulkinham, he is mistaken for a preacher. He has the first of many flashbacks about his grandfather, who was a tent preacher. Hazel meets the 18 year old Enoch, a manic and hyperactive young man who develops a strong need for Hazel’s approval. He also meets a blind preacher, Asa Hawks and his young daughter, Sabbath Lily. Hazel follows them and rents a room in their boarding house. Hazel discovers that Asa’s blindness isn’t genuine. When Asa leaves, Sabbath Lily takes up with Hazel.
Hazel starts his Church Without Christ and preaches on the street to little response. A rival preacher, Hoover Shoats, steals Hazel’s message and is able to command an audience and run a profitable church. Hazel follows the “prophet” who works with Shoats, rams his car into a ditch and then runs him over. A policeman stops Hazel for driving without a license and forces his car into a lake. Hazel responds by blinding himself, and wearing boots filled with glass and binding himself with barbed wire. Abandoned by Sabbath Lily, his landlady, Mrs Flood agrees to take care of him if he agrees marriage. He leaves and is found days later by police who return him to the boarding house, where he soon dies.
The last two decades of John Huston’s directorial career were mixed to say the least. The 1940s/1950s peak, which produced ‘The Maltese Falcon’, ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ and ‘The African Queen’ had given way to a relatively lean period of film making. The likes of ‘Escape to Victory’ and ‘Annie’ are his best known pictures from his later years, probably for all the wrong reasons, but don’t be fooled into writing Huston off too quickly, for even in the twilight of his career, he was still capable of producing a gem. ‘Wise Blood’ is one of the most overlooked films of Huston’s career; a sensitive and faithful adaptation of the first novel by the Deep South writer Flannery O’Connor.
Hazel Motes, played with great conviction by Brad Dourif, returns home after being discharged from the Army, but lacks a purpose in the world. Huston hints with an increasing number of flashbacks, filmed in gaudy blues and reds, at Hazel’s past, which defines the man he currently is. His grandfather (played by Huston) was a tent preacher and Hazel’s only mission in life thereafter is to reject the fundamentalism of his upbringing. Mistaken as a preacher by a taxi driver, this almost inadvertently becomes Hazel’s calling. Knowing he wants to be someone, he exploits the images he’s accidentally cultivated, to establish the Church Without Jesus Christ. Hazel preaches the opposite of what the Bible teaches, that “the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way” with an almost evangelical zeal.
Huston, remaining honest to the novel, subtly reinforces O’Connor’s satirical barbs about religious fundamentalism. Hazel encounters two sets of preachers on his travels, both frauds to some extents. Ava, assisted by his daughter Sabbath Lily, pretends to have blinded himself to prove his faith (a test of devotion that Hazel later himself invokes) but is used solely as a means of begging. Hoover Shoats, a charismatic preacher who uses his guitar to captivate an audience, exploits and steals Hazel’s message, using it for profit by charging those who wish to join this Church.
The most tragic (or is that tragic-comic?) victim is Enoch, an 18 year old boy, who was abandoned by his father and in need of direction and guidance. The only person who takes on board Hazel’s message, he’s persistently admonished for doing so, but such is his need to find approval by anyone in the absence of his father. Enoch might be the sole honest person in a world of religious dishonesty. He finds the “new Jesus” that Hazel requires for his Church; a miniature Mummy from the state museum. Enoch speaks of his “wise blood”, inherited from his family. His faith is strong but needs proof, and Huston displays Enoch as essentially decent, albeit naive, but with greater integrity than those around him.
Perhaps Huston’s most impressive action is maintaining a thoroughly ambiguous tone throughout. We don’t know whether what we’re seeing is meant to be comic, tragic or a genuine contemplation on religion. One suspects it’s all three at once. Even if the film initially starts near-farcically, starting with Hazel’s attempts to preach to the bewildered masses and culminating in Enoch stealing a gorilla suit, ‘Wise Blood’ later enters much darker terrain. Hazel kills his double, who’d been hired by Shoats to impersonate him; the motive being that he was “a man that ain’t true and one that mocks what is.” The film’s coda, in which Hazel genuinely blinds himself with lime (perhaps undertaking for real what Asa deceived others into believing he’d done) and then binds himself in barbed wire, wearing boots filled with glass and stones feels like an act of penance, a search for redemption, invoking the suffering of Christ. Perhaps this scene more than anything reflects the overall ambivalence.
‘Wise Blood’ is an intriguing film, which has long been considered cult viewing and is increasingly seen as one of the better additions to the Huston canon. That’s not to say it hasn’t its flaws; there’s almost no attempts to retain the novel’s setting, which makes it feel a little out of sync with the original period, which also affects the otherwise excellent score. Brad Dourif produces a remarkable performance as Hazel, capturing his conviction and contempt perfectly, and Amy Wright (Sabbath Lily) and Dan Shor (Enoch) also impress. Huston places great trust in the power of the novel, remaining truthful to sequences of events and never allows his own role as director to overshadow O’Connor’s original source.
‘Wise Blood’ was released on DVD on 2 March by Second Sight Films.