Monday, 26 November 2012

Wise Blood (1979)

In the late 70's John Huston was approached by Michael Fitzgerald to find out if Huston was willing to direct an adaptation of Flannery O'Conner's Wise Blood. Huston agreed if Fitzgerald could get the money together. He did, and they shot it quickly, using no big name stars on a minimal budget. To play the lead role of disillusioned would be preacher Hazel Motes, Huston cast Brad Dourif, who had come off a major success playing Billy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest in 1975.

The rest of the cast was rounded out by multiple low-profile relatively unknown actors, with Harry Dean Stanton and Ned Beatty playing two of such parts.

Young poor, ambitious and uneducated Hazel Motes returns to his southern town to look for his family. They have gone, and the house of his youth stands unoccupied and rotting. He then buys himself a suit, and heads for the city. There he meats Enoch, a clinger who takes a strange liking to the stoic and anti-social Motes. Motes also encounters Asa Hawkes, a "blind" preacher who goes around on the streets and begs for money with his promiscuous daughter Sabbath.

Hawkes's preaching of Jesus and god sets Motes off on an anti Jesus tirade, and it is then that Motes decides to create a church, but one without Jesus. He buys a banged up car and goes around preaching on the streets.

 This may be one of the strangest films I've ever seen. Each scene adds a layer of disbelief upon the last, and Dourif's performance just gets more and more strange and interesting. Hazel Motes is a man so confused by life that he can only see one thing, God. But God is the thing that blocks him from doing anything. Due to childhood trauma at the hands of his preacher grandfather, Hazel Motes doesn't know anything about life, except that he is afraid of God.

When he hears someone preaching Jesus, this childhood trauma manifests itself in the form of anger, and he decides to preach, but not Jesus, but rather a form of anti-Jesus. In this form Brad Dourif manages to suspend your disbelief as you wonder exactly what this man is all about, his motives and ambitions. As Huston said himself, Hazel is a one note guy, and that one note is god. Weather it be the fear of God, or the fear of the possibility of God, religion is Hazel's life.

The film has been called many things, but cult film pretty much wraps it up. On release, there was little to no impact made, but over the years the film has garnered a sort of reputation. It is an odd little curio, and a strange film stylistically. It feels like the work of a young beginner, than the work of an old master. The film feels uniquely fresh, and is quite entertaining as a result. However I cannot give it a great mark because it is not a great film.

It is certainly entertaining, but there are too many flaws with the film for me to call it a masterpiece it is an incredible piece of off-kilter entertainment. The performances are quite good, and the direction is stupendous. However I have a major quibble. The ending. I am still trying to process it (SPOILERS follow).

Hazel's car is stopped by a policeman who pushes it into a river. Hazel blinds himself, and then keeps inflicting various forms of physical punishment to himself (barbed wire on the torso, rocks in the shoes). Huston explains the ending by saying that the whole film is Hazel's fight with Jesus, and in the end Jesus wins. The ending is certainly very effective in this message, but it was intensely hard to predict. But then again, Hazel Motes is a very unpredictable young man.

I will spend my last paragraph speaking of an odd side story that occurs. Enoch becomes obsessed with a man in a monkey costume, and with shaking his hand. He then takes the suit (it is unclear what he does with the man), and walks around shaking people's hands. He is pathetic, but he comes off as scary. The same  way Hazel comes off. Like a boy who doesn't know what do do when he grows up, drifting aimlessly from place to place just looking for something to latch on to. Enoch latches onto Hazel, and Hazel latches onto religion.

Wise Blood,
Starring: Brad Dourif, Harry Dean Stanton and Ned Beatty,
Directed by Jhon Huston,
7.5/10 (B+)

1. The Dead
2. The Asphalt Jungle
3. The Misfits
4. Wise Blood
5. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
6. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

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