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WISE BLOOD

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Brad Dourif, Ned Beatty, Harry Dean Stanton, Dan Shor, Amy Wright, Mary Nell Santacroce
Director: John Huston
Audio: Dolby Mono
Video: Anamorphic Widescrreen 1.78:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: See Review
Length: 106 Minutes
Release Date: May 12, 2009

ďThere ainít but one thing that I want you to understand, and thatís that I donít believe in anything.Ē

Film ***1/2

Iím very much a Christian, but I also happen to be someone who appreciates when films take risks in dealing with all kinds of subject matter, including religion. Whatís interesting to note about Wise Blood is the sheer fact that it comes from a novel written by Flannery OíConner, who was deeply religious, and yet was directed by the legendary John Huston, who happened to be an atheist. Even more surprising is that Huston made an adaptation that honored the themes of OíConnerís novel.

After watching the film, it occurred to me that Huston and Clint Eastwood share very much in common as filmmakers. Huston was in his early 70s when he made this film, which is certainly one of the boldest, most risky projects he ever committed to. Eastwood has done the same thing as he entered his 70s, making one bold and heavily artistic film after another. Both men were able to enjoy an early retirement, but kept on making films they were passionate about. Now if that isnít inspiring, I donít know what is.

Iíd be lying if I said this wasnít a strange film. For a film made in 1979, itís quite unlike anything Iíve ever seen. When you consider Hustonís resume of classic films, Wise Blood is most distinctive, but thatís only because Huston intended this to be more of an artistic independent feature, which it certainly was.

The film is a most observant character piece set against the South in post World War II times. Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif) has returned from the war as a somewhat changed man. He finds himself drifting through the small religious town of Taulkinham, Tennessee that seems to have a preacher located on every street corner.

Through observing the street frauds, as well as recalling memories of his strict religious upbringing, Hazel receives an epiphany of an unusual sort. He is suddenly inspired to start up his very own church, which he calls ďThe Church of Christ Without ChristĒ. He purchases a car, feeling that no man with a good car needs to be justified, and begins to lead people into his congregation in the same manner as the other street preachers.

Basically, Hazelís strategy is to lure people away from the traditional form of church, which he sees as nothing but a system built on corruption and fear mongering. The irony of the situation comes from the simple fact that he is something of a lost soul and doesnít really have a grasp on much in life, which he feels may have come as a result of how he was raised. But he does know that he wants to reject and rebel against everything taught to him as a child by his grandfather (Huston, seen briefly in flashbacks), a fire Ďní brimstone preacher.

Hazelís actions do have major consequences, though not in the way you might expect. His main rival, phony blind street preacher Asa Hawkes (Harry Dean Stanton) concocts a scheme to have his flirtatious daughter, Sabbath Lilly (Amy Wright) to seduce him. Hazel is also thrown off by evangelistic con man Hoover Shoats (Ned Beatty), who is so joyfully inspired by the man that he hires a man to dress just like Hazel and preach with him on the street, charging folks a dollar to join them.

The film is quite challenging, open to many interpretations, and goes to many unexpected places by the end. Hazel is quite simply one of the most unpredictable film characters Iíve ever come across, as Iím sure he was in the world of literature. He makes a crucial decision towards the end of the film and from that point all the way up to the final frame, I was left speechless.

Brad Dourif is a character actor whoís enjoyed something of a unique career since the mid 1970s. His breakout role was also his very first one, as mental patient Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over the Cuckooís Nest, which got him an oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Talk about a great start.

But Iím stunned he didnít receive a Best Actor nomination for his work in Wise Blood, because it really is an astonishing piece of acting. He commands this character in a powerful way, making you pay close attention to every word he says. These days, Dourif is mostly known for his over-the-top work in schlocky horror fare (heís the voice of Chucky in the Childís Play movies), but I strongly urge any fan of his to discover this film and realize just how gifted he is.

In short, Wise Blood is one of the most challenging films Iíve ever seen. Itís both a bold work of art from director Huston and a one of a kind performance piece from Dourif. If anything, it serves as one of the most flawless film adaptations of a novel ever made.

Video ****

Leave it to Criterion to take a thirty year old film and give it one astounding restoration. The anamorphic presentation is quite honestly one of the best transfers in the studioís history. A lot of the film consists of outdoor scenes during the daytime, and the sun baked Southern setting looks dynamic and extremely authentic from beginning to end. I really couldnít spot any particular image flaws, which you donít find yourself saying when reviewing a film from the late 70s. A magnificent job from Criterion, and itís sure to get mentioned at this yearís DMC Awards.

Audio ***

Criterion has demonstrated time and time again that they can work wonders with a simple mono track, a fact that holds true on this release. Itís a dialogue oriented piece and nothing more, but every spoken word is delivered in the sharpest, clearest form. Alex Northís score definitely has a down-home sound to it, and also plays quite well through the sound mix.

Features ****

Criterion remains the top DVD studio when it comes to true special features, and this release is yet another prime example. There isnít a commentary track, but the extras provided are so incredibly superb that they definitely make up for its absence. We get three separate, extremely revealing interviews with actor Brad Dourif, screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald and writer/producer Michael Fitzgerald, as well as an audio recording of Flannery OíConner reading her short story, ďA Good Man is Hard to FindĒ. Thereís also a 26 minute segment from a 1982 episode of the PBS series ďCreativity with Bill MoyersĒ that profiles John Huston and his career. Rounding out the extras is a Theatrical Trailer and a great insert booklet featuring an essay by author Francine Prose.

Summary:

Wise Blood is indeed an independent filmmaking gem from the late 70s, courtesy of a legendary director. Whether your into religion or not, this is a most unique film that if anything should be experienced for the amazing performance of Brad Dourif, as well as Criterionís one of a kind presentation.

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