In the opening scenes of John Huston’s 1979 film Wise Blood, Brad Dourif is discharged from the Army thanks to an “injury” whose nature he chooses not to disclose; returning to his home town, he finds most of it gone. Everyone, it seems, has drifted away via an interstate that a local tells him has been around “just long enough for everyone to drive off on it.” Adapting Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 novel, Huston visits an American South where the divide between tradition and modernity has grown even sharper than in O’Connor’s time. Leaving his hometown for the small city of Taulkinham, where a once-thriving downtown has crumbled into drab decay—Huston shot the film in Macon, Georgia—Dourif takes on the persona of an unholy fool, dressing like an old-time revival preacher, but espousing the gospel of “Church Without Christ.” He’s a prophet in a barren land who discovers that faith, even faith in nothing, comes at a cost. Even the impious must be tested.
Among those doing the testing: a dull-witted disciple (Dan Shor), an unapologetic charlatan (Ned Beatty), an aggressive blind preacher (Harry Dean Stanton), and Amy Wright, Stanton’s high-spirited daughter, who becomes immediately infatuated with Dourif. Each threatens to sidetrack the sermons he delivers atop a fast-failing car, but Dourif continually redoubles his efforts. His wild-eyed performance—and the hints of hurt, tenderness, and doubt behind those eyes—drive the movie. Dourif wanders an area that’s visibly scarred by the eternal war between Saturday-night temptation and Sunday-morning repentance, and reluctant to fold itself into the world opened up by those new interstates.
Huston’s tone sometimes feels as conflicted as his protagonist’s, and the overbearing Alex North score doesn’t help. But the decision, possibly helped by the film’s tiny budget, to shoot the novel as a contemporary piece with no period trappings and a minimum of the attendant Southern-gothic clichés pays off beautifully. He brings a darkly comic feel to Dourif’s struggle to remain free from God, but the darkness comes to dominate as Dourif gets drawn toward a conclusion whose grimness still extends the possibility of God’s grace. In her accompanying essay, Francine Prose reveals that Huston’s initial interpretation of the film’s final scene diverged greatly from O’Connor’s. In a way, that’s fitting. It’s a story that seeks to reconcile extremes without changing them, or losing the harshness of their clash.
Key features: A long 1982 Bill Moyers interview with Huston and a recording of O’Connor reading “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” highlight a typically Criterion-quality selection of extras.