By Jake Triola
John Huston’s late-career film, Wise Blood, is a 1979 adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 novel, which, as an intended parody of existentialism, follows a war veteran who sets out to form “The Holy Church of Christ Without Christ,” as an avowed atheist sickened by the spread of evangelicalism in the southern U.S.A. Though a thoroughly faithful (pun intended) adaptation of O’Connor’s work, Huston’s version falls a little short.
In the first act, I wonder to myself why exactly I follow the character of Hazel Motes, portrayed with an altogether theatrical fervency by Brad Dourif, who had quite recently been Academy Award-nominated for his role as Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). As a follow- up to said wonder, I naturally want to give the character a chance. Maybe I’ll see something redeemable, or perhaps human in his surreal, Gilliam-esque caricature.
Motes’ foil is just as off-putting: a “blind” preacher ironically named Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton), who has caused his own disability in an act of martyrdom, we find out quickly that Hawks is not blind but, rather, hungry for followers. His goal becomes getting Motes as far from his daughter as possible, as their relationship is questionably comparable to one of an incest cult, which just so happens to be exceedingly consistent with any of O’Connor’s other character relationships. In addition to Hawks, Motes also has to deal with Hoover Shoates (Ned Beatty), the big-mouthed, ten-gallon-hat-wearing capitalist radio-preacher, who loudly criticizes Motes’ methodology, ultimately expressing that Motes will “never make it in the preachin’ industry,” as well as “what you need is a little competition,” and “I’ll find prophets for peanuts, man!”
It’s all business, folks, and business is boomin’.
Later on, Motes does, in fact, encounter Hawks’ daughter, Sabbath Lily Hawks, who desperately tries to seduce him, apparently motivated by trading her father’s ascetic eeriness for Motes’ sociopathy. Obsessed with the idea that she’s a “bastard” because her parents never married, she bluntly proclaims that life, for her, is a mere waiting room to Hell. When Motes meekly makes an attempt at consoling her and that she will not, in fact, burn, she only dismisses him.
Self-torture makes frequent appearances in this jarringly goofy film. Hazel Motes hates himself and everyone around him and, therefore, walks around with sharp, metal objects in his boots, blinds himself with lime, and wraps himself with barbed wire. By the end of the story, he’s told by his caretaker that he “might as well be one of those monks… might as well live in a monkery!”
If you’ve ever read Flannery O’Connor, you’ll know that her collection of characters is the quintessence of the word “grotesque.” They’re tormented beings that come in conflict with everything and everyone that they encounter. They are comic but brutal, and it always feels like any one of them could snap at any second. In the end, something does, but we don’t exactly see the full thing play out. The rising action is explosive, and the climax comes quietly. This, rather than the self-mutilation, is what makes this film a horror movie.
Like Huston’s final film, an adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead, Wise Blood is a great example of how exactly one should copy words to screen. That said, the words work better, and the film itself lacks a deeper understanding of its characters that make the novel worth the read. For example, in O’Connor’s work, the reader is made aware of Motes’ struggles in the action of World War II and his own doubts regarding original sin because of what he’s witnessed. Houston turns O’Connor’s story into a display case for the aesthetics of absurdity—an amalgam of weirdos who, funnily enough, lack any understanding of unknowing.