Wise Blood (1979)
"Where you come from is gone. Where you thought you were goin' to weren't never there. And where you are ain't no good unless you can get away from it."
With lines like that director John Huston, 73 years old when he came to make Wise Blood, might merely have pointed his camera at Flannery O'Connor's novel and come up with a fairly compelling film. As it is a furious, fire-eyed, 29-year-old Brad Dourif stars as O'Connor's existentialist anti-hero Hazel Motes, a puritanical atheist zealously preaching that the word of God is a lie. It's not just the performance of Dourif's career. Wise Blood's potent gumbo of melodrama, tragedy, grotesquery and satire places it among the most intriguing and overlooked American independent films of the late 1970s.
Hazel Motes is a young man back from WWII, drifting through the South with nothing to cling to but a strange strain of God-hating nihilism. Arriving in Taulkinham city in Tennessee, he rents a room, buys a car and forms his own irreligious religion, The Church of Christ Without Christ where "the blind don't see, the lame don't walk and the dead stay that way."
It's a purposefully pointless credo designed to liberate the needy from the clasp of a corrupt and fear-mongering church, yet it also fulfils a bizarre need within the devout personality of Motes, whose own grandfather (played by Huston in flashback) was a fire 'n' brimstone preacher. Motes backs it up with a plan to break each of the 10 Commandments, but rival evangelist-cum-con-artist Hoover Shoats (Ned Beatty) spots in Motes' godless church a chance to make money and recruits his own stooge (William Hickey) to impersonate Motes, this time charging a dollar to join.
As Motes drifts between nowhere and nothing he's cunningly ensnared by the seductive Sabbath Lilly (Amy Wright), teenage daughter of another crooked street preacher, Asa Hawkes (Harry Dean Stanton), who claims to have blinded himself with lime in order to demonstrate the redemptive power of God. As Motes trawls the streets in his beloved but decrepit automobile, he is also pursed by simple-minded teenager Enoch Emery (Dan Shor), who is looking for someone - anyone - to follow. Emery is moved by his own "wise blood" - a possibly misguided sense of fate - to steal a mummified corpse from a museum and present it to Lily and Motes as their own personal Jesus.
Wise Blood came towards the end of Huston's long and distinguished career, but he lost none of his spark in those final years. In 1979 The Dead, Prizzi's Honour and a lurid adaptation of Malcolm Lowry's drink-drenched novel Under The Volcano were still to come. The most important aspect of directing, Huston always maintained, was good casting, and in Dourif he's blessed with a stick-thin rebel-ascetic who stalks his way through the film rasping out O'Connor's dialogue like the febrile prose-poetry it is. Dourif would never get another gig like it. He's matched by Amy Wright as Lily, who has the sullen, sexual air of a charged-up Sissy Spacek. Harry Dean Stanton, whose character is compressed into a few short scenes, is in his natural environment here, sleazing his way through lies and corruption in the hope of making a buck off Jesus' back.
Wise Blood may have been overlooked by cinema-goers and critics, but musicians recognised the furious zeal exhibited by the godless but puritanical Motes, a post-punk anti-hero long before the fact. Gang Of Four celebrated the character in 'A Man With A Good Car' in 1984. In 1991 industrial rock machine Ministry ripped dialogue from the film for their motorised hillbilly pile-up 'Jesus Built My Hotrod'. Another industrial rock pioneer, JG Thirlwell named his collaborative project with members of Swans after O'Connor's novel. It's also tempting to speculate that David Thewlis' Johnny in Mike Leigh's apocalyptic Naked was forged in the same fire that smoulders within Motes as he navigates his own private circle of hell. And screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald, who as a child was babysat by Flannery O'Connor, may well have looked back to the grotesque self-flagellation on display in the final scenes here when he wrote The Passion of The Christ with Mel Gibson nearly 25 years later.
There's certainly a strange and disorienting quality to the film, which seems to take place simultaneously in the 1940s and the 1970s. In fact this was a consequence of the limited budget, which meant Huston had to place Motes, with his demob suit and preacher man's hat, on the streets of modern Tennessee. Far from distracting or detracting from the intensity of the story, it introduces the sense of a timeless fable, Motes being, after all, a figure cast in opposition to everything, everywhere, always.
Eventually the twin impulses within Motes - his religious fervour and his hatred of God - drive him off the road into madness. This is indeed the point at which melodrama threatens to swamp the story, but it's overtaken by a final grotesque tragedy. Huston's unshowy direction, the blistering performance by Dourif and O'Connor's own conflation of horror and humanity make it a vivid denouement to this strange, intense tale about the ferocious atheist who turns out to be a holy fool after all.