- Movie Rating -

Wise Blood (1979)

| December 12, 1979

John Huston’s Wise Blood is a movie in which I merely stand ringside.  That’s not a good thing because it means that I stand away from the picture; outside of it.  I never feel as if I’m inside the world that is being presented.  The environment presented here is too big, too vast, too vague, too far removed from any reality that I can connect with.

Of course, Huston’s films always seemed larger than they should.  His characters speak in words more colorful than life and his characters always seem a little outsized.  You could see that in The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Misfits, The Man Who Would Be King.  The difference with Wise Blood is that there never seems to be a point of engagement.  You’re a spectator, not a participant.

Wise Blood is, perhaps, the strangest film that Huston ever made.  It is an exploration of the deeply rooted religious culture present in America’s deep south, but the characters are so outsized that you aren’t fixated on their beliefs so much as you are concerned about their mental health.  And since Huston apparently wants to present this story as high comedy, it often feels like insult to injury.

The best I can say is that, at least, he based the story on the work of a Southern writer, Flannery O’Connor.  Based on his 1962 book, the story concerns Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif), a veteran who returns home to Georgia after serving in Vietnam to find that what he left behind isn’t there anymore – his family has basically uprooted.

Meandering through a world that he doesn’t recognize anymore, he becomes a drifter and ends up in Macon and befriends several other lost souls like himself, including a self-blinded preacher named Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton), the simple-minded Enoch Emory (Dan Shor), and Asa’s nervous daughter Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright).  Eventually, Hazel starts his own non-religion, The Church Without Christ, an order of non-religion that dispels with the need for worshipping Christ or anything else. 

I never read O’Connor’s book but whatever narrative he was trying to present must have had much more coherency than this.  There are weird subplots that get in the way including the theft of a mummy from a museum and the appearance of a guitarist-toting minister played by Ned Beatty.  It all seems to come into the film to give it some atmosphere and some comedy but it comes off feeling like padding.

I think Huston was a great director who could have handled such an interesting subject with much more forward momentum than this.  The idea of the cultural roots of religion in the American south is a potent subject to be handled with more respect than this.  He seems to be kidding with these characters, making them so ridiculous and so out-sized that we are never engaged with them.  Again, I stand away from these people and their story without ever feeling as if I know them.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1979) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized