Wise Blood: The Strange Odyssey of An Unknown Religion

Wise Blood (1979)
Directed by John Huston.
With Brad Dourif, John Huston,
Harry Dean Stanton, Amy Wright,
Ned Beatty, Dan Shor.

Now I’ve never read Flannery O’Connor’s novel that this John Huston directed film is based on, but I’m not sure if her vision matched the rather unique one of Huston’s.

Wise Blood is a film is about Hazel Motes (Dourif), an ambitious, young and uneducated southerner who has just returned from the war. Motivated to make a change and become something important, Motes leaves his farmland for the closest city. Motes, who despises preachers although gets compared to one often due to his blue suit and black hat, decides to become one himself as he creates the “Church Without Christ”.

The journey of Motes is a very strange one. At times an almost surreal feeling is evoked as Motes wanders throughout this unrecognizable and mysterious city of Taulkinham. The city itself works as a representation of a place devoid of faith and culture. The city children worship a large man in a gorilla costume more than it does any religious figure. To some anti-religion people, you know, the ones who believe it to be a sham all throughout, the audacity of worshiping either of those might be on the same level, but the point is painted clear as day to me. Perhaps similarities can be made to our own modern world, where celebrities, rock stars and athletes are the most celebrated people on the planet.

What draws me to Wise Blood is not only the odd presentation of social commentary and religious satire in the form of a strange black comedy, but the actors that give each character a face and personality to a name. A young-faced Brad Dourif is the biggest thing going with a nearly unsettling performance of the lost and misguided Motes. Harry Dean Stanton plays Asa Hawks, a blind preacher who takes Motes under his wing at the request of his supposedly pure daughter Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright). Neither are as they appear to be, as Hawks ability to see is bright as day and Lily’s sex drive kicks in full force the moment she sees Motes.

These two characters, joined by Motes and the maniacal Enoch Emory (Dan Shor) are all so very representative of ideals and concepts and is a true credit to the writing of O’Connor. Hawks and Lily are the superficial facade of religion, Motes is the wandering, belligerent youth fighting back at Jesus Christ like so many youths do. Emory, the 18-year-old boy Motes meets in his first week in the city, isn’t exactly 100% right in his head, and immature for his age. He comes off as very easy to mold and influence, a naive and more innocent version of Motes in a way.

Wise Blood is such a strong film for all this and more. The slightly deep characterization is the hooking point in partnership with the simply strange events of the film, such as every single scene involving the shrunken mummy stolen from the museum that Emory, who thinks he has the wisest blood out of everyone, proclaims to be the new Jesus, to the scenes between an overweight prostitute and Motes, to the rather shocking and disturbing and once again strange ending sequences.

There’s a feeling hard to shake from Wise Blood, but it’s a good one. A good one that you probably don’t want to live through yourself for how strange, odd and lost it all is. This is a thoughtful film, very rich and unique in all aspects, and a true unheralded John Huston cult classic, and a film with absolutely no counterparts to my general knowledge.

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