John Huston's Wise Blood (1979) is a complicated ode to the South, a rambling search for redemption as we follow Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif), a man hell-bent on running from God, trying to find his place in the world. Adapted from Flannery O'Connor's novel Wise Blood, we find Hazel Motes home from the war, and seeing his home destroyed, he sets out to found the Church of Christ Without Christ, a place where one can be saved without the need for religion of any kind. Along the way Motes encounters other cryptic characters such as Enoch Emery (Dan Shor), a young man fascinated by a shrunken mummy in a local museum, another wily street preacher, Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton), and his daughter Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright), as well as other rival preachers, prophets, prostitutes and a man in a gorilla suit, all before finding his own dark end.
Confused yet? The novel is a difficult and powerful story relying on O'Connor's well-informed strength of description and belief in certain mysteries. Sadly, the film is a base reduction that plays up the unimportant while failing to fully realize O'Connor's true intentions.
While it is true that Wise Blood is thick with comic quotable moments, such as Motes' declaration that " ... nobody with a good car needs to be justified," yet much of the graceful eloquence of Flannery O'Connor's descriptions and setting is stripped away in what is essentially a comic blunder. Ham-fisted film elements that felt only natural in the novel instead end up leaving the audience confused and bewildered. It becomes readily apparent that filmmaker John Huston's vision of the South is wildly different from O'Connor's -- to the point of being unrecognizable. What makes this misstep even more mystifying is the involvement of the Fitzgerald brothers, Michael and Benedict, as producers and writers. The Fitzgerald family had longstanding ties to Flannery O'Connor as editors of her work -- they were close friends, as well as confidants. If anyone seems qualified to handle the transition of such strange characters from page to screen, it would be the Fitzgeralds, with their intimate knowledge of O'Connor's work and intentions. But still, the film falls flat.
O'Connor's novel is a dark tome, focusing on the relentless nature of grace and redemption, and Huston's film plays up the strange comedic elements until the story itself is lost, somewhere in-between the zippy music of certain scenes and the horrific final moments of the film. Very much aesthetically placed in the late 1970s, the film suffers through low-budget problems such as a repulsive set design and ill-chosen costumes. And then there are the confusing non-budget related problems, things that can only reasonably be described as intentional choices, such as the archaic-sounding Southern ballads that pepper the score and often suddenly draw the viewer out of the film. True admirers of O'Connor's work would do better simply re-reading the novel, rather than attempting to parse this maudlin disaster of a film.
With their usual attentive eye for detail, it must be said that Criterion has done the release justice, including a recently restored gorgeous digital transfer of the film, extensive interviews with Michael and Benedict Fitzgerald as well as main actor Brad Dourif, rare audio of Flannery O'Connor reading her work, and an excellent essay by Francine Prose. The startling and intentionally sparse cover and booklet artwork created by Josh Cochran is tonally perfect, underlining the characters and situations without succumbing to the temptation of over-analyzing through diagrams. One feels as if O'Connor herself would have admired the cover, as a wide-eyed Brad Dourif stares out into his new life, touched and left forever changed.
The excellent essay by Francine Prose deals with the creative process of Huston and the Fitzgerald brothers in their struggle to get the film made, and offers insight into the problems of the film, though she appears timid in her critique of the religious elements. With O'Connor, one is best served by admitting that her Catholic beliefs deeply informed her entire way of life. A film that fails to understand this element of her work is doomed to philosophically wander, seeking to explain the behavior of the characters as psychosomatic afflictions or zany buffoonery. In the end, Wise Blood should have been a film about a man who succumbs to the inevitability of religion in his own life, relentlessly pursued by a God he cannot see or feel. Yet the film itself retains only faint relation to the powerful and dark novel in much the same way a mere postage stamp cannot hope to emulate the greatness of the Mona Lisa.
Wise Blood is available now from Criterion.