By the end of the ’70s, veteran director John Huston had amply demonstrated his ability to change with the times, making a series of hip oddities that stood in sharp contrast to the stuffy museum pieces created by many of his chronological peers during the ‘70s. Of these offbeat pictures, Wise Blood is perhaps the strangest, not only because the underlying material is peculiar but also because Huston presents the story as if it is high comedy—even though the narrative of Wise Blood is a grim compendium of episodes featuring characters gripped by criminal, delusional, self-destructive, and sociopathic impulses. It’s clear that the intent of the picture was to offer broad satire about certain cultural extremes prevalent in America’s Deep South, but it’s difficult to laugh when characters deeply in need of psychiatric intervention court oblivion.
Based on Flannery O’Connor’s 1962 novel of the same name, the picture follows the exploits of Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif), a Georgia native who returns home from military service in Vietnam to find that his old life has disappeared—his family skipped town, leaving their home an empty wreck. Unexpectedly adrift, Hazel relocates to the city of Macon and builds relationships with a group of eccentrics living on the fringes of society. Hazel’s new acquaintances include Enoch (Dan Shor), an exuberant young simpleton; Asa (Harry Dean Stanton), a fire-and-brimstone street preacher; and Sabbath (Amy Wright), Asa’s twitchy daughter. Eventually, Hazel decides to start his own religion, which isn’t actually a religion, so he ends up preaching against Jesus on the same street corners where Asa sings the gospels. Meanwhile, an edgy romance between Hazel and Sabbath takes shape, and Enoch follows Hazel around like a puppy. It all gets very bizarre—one of the subplots involves stealing a shrunken corpse from a museum—and the great Ned Beatty joins the story midway through as an opportunistic guitarist/preacher/swindler.
Although Huston films the story with his customary elegance, blending evocative production design and subtle camerawork to create a vivid sense of place, the arch nature of the characterizations makes it difficult to buy into Wise Blood’s illusions. Dourif seems like a foaming-at-the-mouth lunatic in nearly every scene, rendering audience empathy nearly impossible; his performance is unquestionably committed and intense, but it’s a drag to watch. Meanwhile, Shor and Wright incarnate ignorance with painful believably. Only Beatty and Stanton strike a palatable balance between the lightheartedness of Huston’s storytelling and the ugliness of O’Connor’s story. Wise Blood would have been a unique film no matter who sat behind the camera, so it’s doubly impressive that a veteran of Huston’s caliber tackled such challenging material. Alas, novelty alone isn’t enough to make for a rewarding viewing experience.
Wise Blood: FUNKY