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aka - John Huston's Wise Blood
USA 1979
Directed by
John Huston
106 minutes
Rated M

3 stars

Wise Blood

John Huston's Wise Blood is an adaptation of Flannery O'Connor's first novel (her only other one was The Violent Bear It Away 1960) a writer who (to cite Wikipedia) favoured "the Southern Gothic style and relied heavily on regional settings and grotesque characters...and... frequently examined questions of morality and ethics".  I'm not sure that she would be that fond of Huston’s rendition of her work. Shot in wintry Macon, Georgia it certainly has the grotesque characters and some Gothic qualities but it also has a Altmanesque tongue-in-cheek quality. In fact for a good portion of the time it comes across as a black comedy that is having fun with the usual assortment of ignorant Southern hicks, complete with the accompaniment of banjo music. Thus when a much darker turn occurs in the latter stage of the narrative it jars badly and leaves one quite discomfited.

Brad Dourif plays Hazel Motes, a relatively simple but intense young man who returns from Army service to an abandonded family farm in the Deep South. Motes has been so mentally affected by his unnamed wartime experience for which he received the Purple Heart that he makes it his vocation to preach against the kind of fundamentalism practiced by his grandfather (John Huston). He starts preaching his 'Church Without Christ' and meets a motley crew of indigents including even more simple-minded zoo worker (Daniel Shor) a crooked preacher (Ned Beatty), a phony blind beggar, Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton) and his slatternly daughter (Amy Wright). Faced with the dishonesty and immorality of the world around Motes rapidly becomes more extreme in his views and finally flips out in an act of self-loathing desperation.

Dourif was an actor whose star was in the ascendant at this time but this film, which, unsurprisingly, failed at the box office, turned out to be as good as it got for him, for although working regularly ever since, his name has slowly slipped down the marquee (his next most well-known appearance is probably as the voice of Chucky in the Child's Play horror franchise). He is very good in this but so are the rest of the cast with a small but stand-out performance by Ned Beatty (and let's not forget another small role for William Hickey as Beatty's assistant).

Wise Blood reflects the cynicism about mankind that characterizes much of Huston’s worldview. Everyone is lost and desperately seeking meaning in a heartless world that is full of grifters and charlatans. He tends to treat it with a kind of Grand Guignol humour but that last act is just a little too sudden and extreme to sit well with the knowing irony that has gone before. Had this been played as a more realistic drama it would have been devastating, as it is, it is simply gruesome and creepy. It is not one of Huston's best films but it is a worthy addition to the category of "Deep South" films. BH

DVD Extras: Theatrical trailer

Available from: Shock Entertainment




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