Unless one pays very close attention the opening credits to a movie, most people would probably be floored at the sheer number of screenplays adapted from books, novels in particular. Given that a filmed version of a book is intended to stand on its own, and the more obscure the book the easier this is to accomplish, there should be little incentive for the viewer to investigate the genesis of the story they have just seen. I personally find that the kinds of stories that warrant such probing are the ones in which the characters’ dimensions are the most fully realized. Wise Blood features a vast array of some truly profound characters, bent by such perverse, yet thoughtful motives that their genesis could have only been literary in origin. Original screenplays tend to place too much emphasis on the screen aspect of the term, and what they often end up with is a collection of superficial, one-dimensional characters. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing (James Bond is a fine example of a very successful one-dimensional character, though literary he may be), but the viewer is in turn inclined to take these characters at face value—motives are seldom questioned, they simply are who they are.
Wise Blood is adapted from Flannery O’Connor’s novel of the same name. I know absolutely nothing about either Ms. O’Connor or her novel, but as you can probably surmise from the introduction to this review I am very intrigued. It is the story of a young man, Hazel Motes, who after serving in a foreign war returns to his Tennessee home only to find his mother’s house in a state of utter dilapidation. His mother is buried not far from where the wretched house barely stands. “Gone to become an angle [sic]” is what reads on her tombstone. Hazel (brilliantly played by Brad Dourif), is somewhat of an enigma, and that’s what makes him so fascinating. We’re given no intimations as to what his life was like before fighting in the war, but it’s obvious that it had left him fully disillusioned, with religion in particular. Hazel’s grandfather was a preacher, and there are intermittent flashbacks of Hazel sitting onstage with his grandfather (played by John Huston himself) as he sermonizes. In one flashback Hazel becomes incontinent during his grandfather’s homily, suggesting a discomfort with the words spewing from the old man’s lips.
Hazel doesn’t stay at home for long. He uses his military stipend to buy himself a pair of duds and a preacher’s hat, telling those he comes in contact with, “I’m gonna’ do some things I ain’t never done before.” It’s made apparent however that even he himself has no idea what these ‘things’ are exactly. He takes a train to another town, is immediately accused of looking like a preacher, but vehemently denies this. He then goes to the home of a prostitute and shares her bed. The following day in town he meets a blind preacher (Harry Dean Stanton) and his daughter. The daughter takes an immediate liking to Hazel, but he takes an immediate provocative stance against the both of them. His disillusionment, which has already fully taken hold of him compels him to accuse the blind man of being foolish for believing in and proselytizing about Jesus, whom he believes to have no part in our world. He then proclaims that he is going to start his own church: ‘The Church of Truth Without Jesus Christ Crucified’, and takes to proselytizing in the streets himself.
Another key character in this story is that of a young simpleton named Enoch Emory, who gravitates to Hazel and offers to help him develop this anti-religion of his. Enoch possesses tendencies which are borderline insane, and his fixation on a shrunken, mummified cadaver serve to advance the on-the-fly developments of Hazel’s church. That being the basic plot, I will not divulge any further details as to how the story progresses. I will only say that it is a fascinating one, and easily kept my interest for the remainder of the film.
Wise Blood works well as a biting, dark comedy. It provides a humorous depiction of a quickly disappearing enclave of Southern White America, making comical use of their dialect and basic human values. I found it interesting how just about any character in the film who started addressing passersby on the street could immediately hold their unwavering attention. Be it some innate simplicity inherent in these people, or a staple of Southern etiquette, people today are certainly not that accommodating.
There’s a certain level of discomfort in watching Hazel Motes wade through these waters of doubt he’s in. Especially when he comes to learn that every other preacher he comes into contact with is an opportunistic phony. The effect this revelation has upon him and what it drives him to do is both shocking and funny.
There are simply not too many movies like Wise Blood being made anymore. Here is a film that focuses its energy one key aspect to the human condition, that of the loss of spirituality. Other themes are also explored, such as honesty, morality, and sex, but they are all masterfully intertwined. This is of course due to the subtle touch of one of America’s greatest directors, John Huston, a man whose decades long career never ceased to be fresh. There’s a lot of value to Wise Blood—great performances, superb writing, and some biting social commentary. Strongly recommended.