With its intense, wild-eyed Brad Dourif performance – you might categorise it as dynamism tinged with mania – as a war hero returning to his barren homeland, John Huston’s adaption of Flannery O’Connor takes us to a place devoid of anything but false hope and peopled by con artists. In the opening scene, Dourif’s Hazel Motes finds the family home in tatters; the memories laid bare may be harsh ones for they’ve lost any ability to compel him to stay and rebuild a life in this place. So he heads out for the city; the hat he wears marks him as a preacher – the first of many presumptions that irk him.
When he encounters a blind man, Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton) and his daughter Sabbath Lily (the astonishing Amy Wright), spruiking their religious convictions in the street in exchange for small change, he’s deeply conflicted. He’s certainly fascinated enough with their double act to dig deeper and with little useful help from an annoying young man, Enoch (Dan Shor) – who takes a shine to Motes’s obvious outsider status – hunts down the pair. Before long he takes up residence in their building whilst determining to establish his own Church Without Christ. He has no idea about means of spreading the word, using makeshift speeches to ambling passer-by’s in some instances. But Hazel is easily side-tracked and enraged, and before long is forced to back away when refusing to see the glowing dollar signs in the offer of another would-be preacher (Ned Beatty).
The strange contradiction which exists in Motes of being both repelled and compelled by Asa and Lily is at the heart of Wise Blood, especially as Hazel becomes entangled in the motivations of the pair. Lily’s primal attraction to Hazel is symptomatic of an unnerving, unhinged devotion, disguised by religious mania, that finally dooms him. The film’s tone tends to waver occasionally, forgoing structure and lucidity as it does. This unevenness, more than anything else, identifies a fundamental failure to wholly mesh the more bizarre elements of O’Connor’s ‘Southern grotesques’ with a filmic translation. The swerve from deadly seriousness commentary to silly comedic asides often makes for harsh juxtapositions.
Thematically, Huston, who was in the final decade of his magnificent career, serves up a familiar caustic brew, using pious phoniness as a metaphor for religion’s utilisation as a means of procuring small pickings from gullible souls – the kind of small-town folk indoctrinated to the sound of a reverent expostulation of ideals. Religion as a damaging moral code dogged by hypocrisy is far from an original metaphor, but here it’s given unusual shadings, even if some of the colours are inevitably mismatched.
As fine as Dourif’s performance is, it may have harmed his later career prospects, for the electrifying fervour he injected into Motes seemed to strike a chord with many a future horror director in search of an off-kilter, over the top psychopath, which Dourif often played with great credibility even whilst slumming it in obvious B-movies. Wise Blood (1979) stands as one of his finest performances, and he’s matched by the equally unnerving Wright as Lily. As Motes loses his way, he makes an irrevocable decision that sees him wallowing in martyrdom – it’s either an ultimate act of emphatic religious devotion or one emblematic of a deeper, inarticulate madness.