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DVD Review: Wise Blood – The Criterion Collection

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Both surreal and challenging, it’s no big surprise that Wise Blood is a fairly obscure entry in John Huston’s résumé. Its inherent oddness seems even more glaring when set alongside the brilliant noir of The Maltese Falcon or the high-stakes adventure of The African Queen. Wise Blood isn’t anything like those films; it’s hardly similar to anything else Huston directed. It walks the line between the tragic and the darkly comic, succeeding at both. At times, it’s a difficult film to get a handle on, and its deeply interesting characters certainly further necessitate multiple viewings of this film based on the novel by Flannery O’Connor. This release by the Criterion Collection marks the first time the film has been made available on DVD, and the amazingly clean high definition digital transfer and the superlative bonus materials truly do justice to this overlooked piece of work.

Brad Dourif, in the performance of his career, stars as Hazel Motes, a freshly discharged army man returning to his small Georgia hometown. Motes is unwaveringly intense no matter who he comes into contact with. He decides to move to the slightly larger town of Taulkinham nearby to make something of himself. His background is unquestionably religious – flashbacks of his fire and brimstone preacher of a grandfather (Huston himself) seem to have defined Motes in a way he can’t really understand.

Upon arriving in the city, Motes meets an eager young man, Enoch Emory (Dan Shor) and blind preacher Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton) and his daughter Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright). Intrigued by the following Hawks has attained, Motes becomes determined to start his own church, except with one key difference. He names his undertaking the Church Without Christ, a place “where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way.” Motes is manic in his promotion of this new church, whipping up an unmatched religious fervor in himself that leads to both the comical and the disturbing.

Wise Blood doesn’t have a lot of sympathetic characters – Motes is relentless in his religious insistence, Hawks is shown to be a charlatan, and his daughter is an unstable slut. O’Connor’s source material points toward the allegorical, and the film certainly isn’t meant to be taken completely literally, but it’s not until the final act when Motes’s world seems to turn in on itself that it starts to make sense. Wise Blood is an unflinching tale of redemption – Motes can’t get there until he realizes his need, even if that need causes him to turn to an even darker route than the one he was traveling before.

The themes are not easily accessed in this film, and it takes more than a cursory examination of the material to get at what O’Connor was attempting to say – Huston himself apparently had trouble with interpreting the ending. What he didn’t have trouble with is creating an intensely evocative film on a shoestring budget. Every scene brims with a weird energy, and the starkness of the mise-en-scene is deeply affecting. Images of Motes preaching from atop his dilapidated car and the disfigured face of the preacher Hawks are hard to get out of your mind.

Dourif is magnetic as the lead character, despite the difficulty of his character. He doesn’t let down the harsh religious wall until it’s absolutely necessary, and then, he finds a way to be even more captivating. Supporting performances are strong across the board, especially Mary Nell Santacroce as the landlady who takes Motes in.

Wise Blood will never reach a broad audience – it was probably fairly inaccessible in 1979 when it was released, and that gap has likely only grown wider since. However, it’s massively entertaining and interesting despite its surreal and angular qualities, and it requires plenty of time to sort things through.

This Criterion Collection DVD release is a typically fantastic one, with a visual transfer that is remarkably clean for a film like this. Special features include excellent interviews with Dourif as well as Benedict and Michael Fitzgerald, who first approached Huston about doing the film and wrote the script. Also included is archival audio of O’Connor reading her short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the only recording of her that exists, and a segment from Creativity With Bill Moyers that features Huston a few years before his death.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.