Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Wise Blood

Wise Blood (Jhon Huston,* 1979) Flannery O'Connor's excoriating look at religion (in general) and Christianity (in particular) is one bitter chalice of wine, satirical, venomous, and with a savage wit that doesn't seem so comic as you see it playing out.  And the man who directed The Bible (and, rapscallion that he was, cast himself as Noah and The Voice of God), John Huston, takes O'Connor's fire-brand of a novel, and without being too showy, manages to dim the outrageousness and make it a little more real, and a little more relatable.

Brad Dourif (a sadly underused actor) heads the cast as Hazel Motes, just off the bus from the Army. He returns home to find the home of his preacher-father (played by Huston) abandoned. You never steer too far away from the family tree, and when Hazel buys himself a new black suit, more than one person says it makes him look like a preacher, which raises Hazel's ire. He intends to live his post-service life as unpreacherly as possible, despite appearances.

Going to town, he reluctantly gains one disciple, Enoch Emery (Dan Shor), not the most stable of followers, and has a run-in with the un-right Reverend Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton) and his daughter Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright), which incenses Hazel, and shouts that he is going to create his own church, The Church Without Christ, just to show that he can do it, and to expose the chicanery of Hawks, who poses as blind and an interpreter of the word.  No one is what they seem: Sabbath Lily, while pretending to be virginal, is actually slatternly and pursues Hazel, something Asa approves of, as he wants to ditch her and travel light.

Hazel then has problems with another "preacher," Hoover Shoats (Ned Beatty), who creates his own church, The Holy Church without Christ (see the difference?), where its followers can interpret the Bible according to their own personal tastes.  That church takes off, with the help of its own direct interpreter of God's Word (played by William Hickey).  Hazel has lost control of his religious idea (such as it is), losing his Faith and his flock simultaneously, sending him into a murderous frenzy, then into a period of madness in which he rails against false gods, false relics and anything that smacks of devotion, then leading to an ascetic lifestyle that involves wrapping himself in barbed wire, before he can pay for his sins.  Creepy.  And harsh.

Huston keeps a lid on the blackness and bleakness, with an almost matter-of-fact presentation of all this, even being discrete at times.  Not to say the film isn't off-center, it is.  Obviously it is set in America, but one is hard-pressed to determine when.  Filmed in Macon, Georgia, it seems like it could be post-WWII with the attitudes and costumes, but the locals and vehicles are from the period before the filming—1979.  It gives you the sense of backwardness and a slight disorientation, like none of it is real.  Combine that Huston's clear-eyed direction and you begin to not know what to believe.


* That's how it's spelled in the Main Titles, designed as a series of road signs with the credits scrawled in chalk on them by a child.  That particular child misspelled Huston's first name but the producers kept it for its childlike innocence.

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