Wise Blood: Criterion Collection
June 1, 2009
Legendary filmmaker John Huston had an uncanny ability to adapt unfilmable literature into well-crafted films. He made sense of Dashiell Hammett’s convoluted plot with his take on The Maltese Falcon (1941), he successfully translated Malcolm Lowry’s alcoholic protagonist to the big screen in Under the Volcano (1984), and brought to life the characters in James Joyce’s novella-length story that ends The Dubliners in The Dead (1987). Add Wise Blood (1979) to this impressive roster of films as Huston tackled Flannery O’Connor’s novel about a man’s obsession with God.
They say that you can’t go home again and this certainly holds true for Hazel Motes (Dourif). He’s just gotten out of the army and heads home only to find a deserted, run-down shadow of a former house left. Everybody in the small-town that he’s from has either left or is dead. So, Motes sets out to do some things that he has never done before. And what better place than the city? Motes starts off believing in nothing and goes from there. In his first taxi cab ride after arriving in the city, his driver mistakes him for a preacher because of his conservative attire.
Motes shacks up with an overweight prostitute, whose address he found in a public washroom, then crosses paths with Asa Hawks (Stanton), a blind preacher, and his daughter Sabbath Lily (Wright) and confronts them with this atheistic beliefs. Motes gets worked up enough to proclaim to nearby bystanders that he’s going to open a Church Without Christ. He takes to the streets and preaches his own unique take on religion, proclaiming that Jesus was a liar and is looking for a new Jesus.
Wise Blood is driven by a powerful performance by Brad Dourif that absolutely crackles with intensity. He’s known mostly for his memorable turns in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and David Lynch films like Dune (1984) and Blue Velvet (1986), but it is the rare cases where he has a starring role like this film or Horseplayer (1990) which really showcase his considerable talents. Dourif inhabits this role with complete and utter conviction, never once winking knowingly at the audience during the film’s numerous satirical scenes.
Motes is on a quest for the truth but he’s surrounded by liars and false prophets, like a blind preacher who can actually see and a fake preacher (Beatty) who’s actually a con man. Motes sees right through these opportunists and it only confirms his beliefs or, rather, lack thereof.
Like Clint Eastwood, John Huston made some of his most interesting, thought-provoking films in the twilight of his career. Wise Blood is an intriguing film that examines the notion of faith and what it means to believe in something. Is Motes driven crazy by his beliefs or was he always that way? No one can question the conviction of his beliefs, just the way he expresses them which are extreme to say the least. Is Huston satirizing the more extreme factions of religion or telling the story of one man’s redemption? The film doesn’t give you a definitive answer, rather leaving it up to the viewer to decide for themselves.
Included is a theatrical trailer.
There is an interview with actor Brad Dourif who says that the filmmakers wanted Tommy Lee Jones to play Motes but he couldn’t do it. Dourif campaigned for the role and convinced Huston that he was right for it. Dourif gives his impressions of working with Huston and tells all sorts of entertaining stories about making Wise Blood.
Also included is an interview with writer/producer Michael Fitzgerald. His parents were good friends with O’Connor for most of her life. He remembered but did not seriously read her work until he was in his twenties. He talks about why he picked Wise Blood to adapt and how he got Huston involved.
There is also an interview with writer Benedict Fitzgerald. He offers his impressions of Motes and talks about what drew him to Wise Blood. He also gives his thoughts about the Deep South.
There is a rare audio recording of Flannery O’Connor reading her 1955 short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” which is the only known recording of her reading her own fiction.
Finally, there is a 1982 episode of the television series Creativity with Bill Moyers that features John Huston talking about his life and career. He also talks about directing his father Walter Huston. He also muses about his approach to acting and directing in general.