John Huston’s Wise Blood (1979) is one of his lesser-known films, but it deserves a wider audience. Based on Flannery O’Connor’s 1952 novel of the same name, Wise Blood is the most faithful screen adaptation I have ever seen, largely because the screenwriter truly loved and understood the source material. The script was written by Benedict Fitzgerald, who knew Flannery O’Connor from childhood. In fact, she was his babysitter. Benedict Fitzgerald is the son of classicist Robert Fitzgerald and his wife Sally, who were close friends of O’Connor. Benedict Fitzgerald also shares O’Connor’s Catholic faith. Later he went on co-author the script of The Passion of the Christ with Mel Gibson.
Fitzgerald may have had an influence on the cast as well, since they pretty much perfectly accord with O’Connor’s descriptions. The cast includes two of my favorite movie weirdos, Brad Dourif and Harry Dean Stanton, as well as Ned Beatty.
When I first saw Wise Blood, I found it baffling. People said things that just didn’t make sense: “Jesus is a trick on niggers,” “Nobody with a good car needs justification,” etc. People wreck cars and even blind themselves for no apparent reason. I found myself wondering “What is this shit?”
Beyond that, Wise Blood is an ugly movie to look at. Everything looks cheap, tacky, and run down. The colors are washed out. But the film’s grimy materiality conceals the lofty religious and metaphysical issues that animate this story.
Wise Blood is a dark comedy about serious matters, a Catholic satire on modern materialism and the Protestant South. (Wise Blood touches on many of the same themes as Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, which is my all-time favorite comedy. See my review here.)
The plot of Wise Blood is fairly simple, and since the movie has been out for decades, I trust nobody will complain about spoilers.
The hero is 22-year-old Hazel Motes, played by Brad Dourif. “Motes,” of course, are specks of dust, and Hazel is often shortened to “Haze,” which suggests imperfect vision, just as “Hazel” suggests vision because it is an eye color. Haze, however, believes that his eyes are wide open, and they see only the material world. Atoms, of course, are tiny motes as well. And a haze of motes suggests that atoms get in the way of true vision. Haze’s grandfather was some sort of Protestant preacher, but Haze rejects all religion. We learn nothing else about his family.
At the opening of the movie, Haze returns home from a war. In O’Connor’s novel, it would be the Second World War, but Huston sets the movie in the 1970s. Haze has been wounded, but he won’t say where, and apparently has some sort of pension. He finds the family home deserted and in ruins. His grandfather’s grave in the back states that he has “Gone to be an angle” (sic).
Haze was deeply marked by his grandfather’s preaching but is in full rebellion. He wants to free himself of Christianity and fully immerse himself in nature. He wants to be loyal to the Earth. O’Connor hints that Haze might be a kind of Nietzschean. When he asserts that “Jesus is a trick on niggers” and “Sin is a trick on niggers,” it sounds like Nietzsche’s claim that Christianity is a slave revolt in morals.
The comedy of Wise Blood is that, despite his best efforts, Haze can’t escape the pull of Christianity. To put the military behind him, Haze buys a suit and hat, then dumps his uniform in the trash. But as soon as people set eyes on Haze, everyone thinks he is a preacher. It is the hat, as well as his grim intensity.
Haze then takes a train to the city of Taulkinham to do some things he has never done before. As one of my students told me years ago, she could hardly wait to leave her small Southern town for Atlanta, so she could “sin.” Haze evidently has the same idea, since his first order of business is to seek out a fat whore named Leora Watts. It seems degrading to pay a fat woman for sex, but perhaps that’s the whole point.
In Taulkingham, Haze runs into a blind preacher, Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton) and his illegitimate daughter Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright). Hawks interrupts a salesman demonstrating a potato peeling machine, the “Miracle Peeler,” by passing out tracts and begging for money. Haze and Sabbath Lily flirt as Haze tears up one of the preacher’s tracts.
In the crowd is 18-year-old Enoch Emery (Dan Shor), who works at the zoo. People don’t like Enoch, basically because he’s an idiot. Enoch complains that people aren’t friendly. Enoch pathetically latches on to Haze, who isn’t friendly to him either, even though Enoch in some ways represents what Haze wants to be: a wholly natural man. Enoch doesn’t think much about Christianity or anything at all. He follows his “wise blood”—instincts, intuitions, compulsions. O’Connor being a Catholic, she depicts the man who follows the wisdom of the blood as a fool.
Haze and Enoch follow Hawks and his daughter. Hawks can tell that “some preacher’s left his mark” on Haze, asking “Did you follow me for me to take it off or to give you another one?” When Hawks begins begging and passing out leaflets again, Haze is so incensed that he delivers his own sermon.
Don’t I know what exists and what don’t? Ain’t I got eyes in my head? Am I a blind man? Let me tell you somethin’. Maybe you think that you ain’t clean because you don’t believe. Every one of you are clean, and I’ll tell you why. If you think it’s because of Jesus Christ crucified, you’re wrong. I ain’t saying he wasn’t crucified, but I say it wasn’t for you. I’m gonna start a new church . . . the Church of Truth Without Jesus Christ Crucified. And it won’t cost you nothin’ to join my church.
In a parting shot to Hawks, Haze spits, “What do I need Jesus for? I’ve got Leora Watts.”
The next day, Haze buys a car. In the novel is it described as a “high, rat-colored car,” but in the movie it is red and white. (“High rat” suggest heirat, the Greek word for priest, and Haze later uses the car as a pulpit.)
Haze doesn’t just want to use the car to leave Taulkinham, he also wants to live in it. But the car is a piece of junk and stalls out on the first hill outside of town. Haze looks over, sees graffiti on the side of the road about Jesus, and has a flashback to his childhood, peeing his pants as his grandfather preaches fire and brimstone, pointing to him: “Jesus will never leave him, ever. Jesus will have you in the end.”
Haze then turns back toward Taulkinham. Interestingly, the car works again when he turns back. Taulkinham is associated with Jesus. Haze’s car is his means of escape. But, as we shall see, he never manages to escape. Jesus has him in the end.
Haze wants to find Asa Hawks. Enoch said he knew where Hawks lived, so Haze heads for the zoo where he finds Enoch making faces and hurling insults at the monkeys. Enoch promises to show Haze where Hawks lives, but tries Haze’s patience by insisting that he first show him something at the MVSEVM: a dried up, shrunken man. Enoch has a strong fascination with the subhuman.
Haze locates the boarding house where Hawks and his daughter live. He goes to the door and knocks. The door is opened by the landlady, Mrs. Flood, played by Mary Nell Santacroce. Haze asks to rent a room. The dialogue is quite droll.
Mrs. Flood: What do you do?
Haze: I’m a preacher.
Mrs. Flood: What church?
Haze: Church of Truth without Christ
Mrs. Flood: Protestant . . . or, or somethin’ foreign?
Haze: Oh, no, ma’am. It’s Protestant.
Once ensconced in the rooming house, Haze sets out to preach on the streets of Taulkinham. He unmasks Asa Hawks as a fraud who had promised to blind himself for Jesus but whose nerve failed. Hawks flees town. Sabbath Lily, who is utterly cynical, seduces Hazel. She says that they are both alike: pure filth. But Sabbath Lily likes it, whereas Haze doesn’t. Sabbath promises to teach Haze to like it too.
One day, Enoch Emery hears Haze preaching:
What you need is somethin’ to take the place of Jesus . . . somethin’ that would speak plain. Now, the Church Without Christ don’t have a Jesus. But it needs one. It needs a new Jesus . . . one that’s all man, without blood to waste . . . that don’t look like any other man, so you’ll look at him. Give me such a Jesus.
Haze, of course, is speaking metaphorically. He knows there is a God-shaped hole in human nature, and if Jesus is ejected, something else will have to take his place.
But another trait of human nature is that some people inevitably take metaphors literally. Enoch Emery is such a person. He knows exactly what Haze is talking about: all man, without blood, who looks unique. So Enoch puts on a disguise, sneaks into the MVSEVM, smashes a glass, and scampers off with the shrunken man. In the novel, once back in his room, Enoch creates a shrine for him. In the movie we see a brief shot of the shrunken man standing at the head of Enoch’s bed while he looks on in awe. O’Connor is suggesting that even Enoch has a God-shaped hole, but when the superhuman is closed off, the subhuman takes its place.
Enoch is soon spooked by the New Jesus, so he brings it to Hazel. Sabbath receives it and thinks it is cute. When she enters the room with her head draped, carrying the shrunken man like a baby in her arms—a grotesque parody of the Madonna and Child—Hazel is enraged, smashes the “baby” against a wall, and tosses it out the fire escape. Sabbath is hysterical.
After Enoch drops off the package, he hears a van announcing that Gonga will be making an appearance outside the local theaters to promote his new film. Gonga is a man in a gorilla suit. There will be free passes for anyone brave enough to shake Gonga’s hand. Enoch gets in line, and when Gonga shakes his hand, it is the first kind gesture he has experienced, perhaps in his entire life. He is so delighted that he goes through the line again and again, until Gonga finally tells him to go to hell.
Stung, Enoch waits until Gonga returns to the van, then assaults him and steals his gorilla costume. Enoch puts on the gorilla suit. In the novel, he ceremoniously buries his clothes, implying that this is more than a change of costume. Then Enoch/Gonga wanders through the town, asking people to shake hands with him, as they scream and flee.
The Gonga episode is a parody of the Christian doctrine of the incarnation. Just as God puts on a man suit to redeem humanity, Enoch puts on a gorilla suit to spread kindness. But when man goes down a level in the great chain of being, he loses his humanity. Enoch is the New Jesus made flesh, as opposed to the dried-up simulacrum he gave to Sabbath.
One night when Haze is preaching on the hood of his car, he is noticed by a radio preacher named Hoover Shoats (Ned Beatty). Beatty thinks that Haze has talent, but needs to promote himself better, so he steps in, introduces himself as Onnie Jay Holy (pig Latin for Johnny Holy), and shows Haze how it is done. Within moments, the Church of Truth Without Christ mutates into the Church of Christ Without Christ, then the Holy Church of Christ Without Christ, suggesting that there’s no escaping Jesus in the end.
But Haze’s doctrine that man is innocent of original sin is not changed by Holy, just sweetened. In Holy’s telling, it is pure Rousseau. Man is naturally good. We are born full of sweetness and love. But society drives our sweetness deep inside us. The purpose of religion is to return us to our innate innocence and goodness.
Aside from these truths, Holy declares that their new church has other advantages: there’s nothing foreign about it, and it’s up to date, at the cutting edge of progress. Join this church, and nobody will get the truth before you.
Haze angrily denounces Holy, who then threatens to run Haze out of business. Haze needs some competition, and Holy can get “prophets for peanuts.” The next night Holy makes good on his threat. He dresses a drunkard up as Haze, and the first schism of the Church of Truth Without Christ is launched. Haze waits until they finish, then follows the fake prophet, runs his car off the road, demands that he strip off his suit and hat, then runs him over and kills him. To his disgust, the dying man begins to confess his sins.
The next day, Haze decides it is best to leave town. He stops to get some gas. His radiator is leaking, his gas tank is leaking, and his tires are about to give out. But Haze insists that his car will get him anywhere he wants to go, and that “This car is just beginning its life. A lightning bolt couldn’t stop it.” A lightning bolt, of course, is often seen as a tool of divine punishment. But Haze does not think he is tempting fate.
Turns out he’s wrong. When Haze gets outside of town, he is pulled over by a policeman. When Haze asks why, the policeman, who speaks very gently, says “I just don’t like your face.” Then the policeman asks Haze to follow him down the road to the “prettiest view you ever did see.” When they arrive, he asks Haze to get out of the car, whereupon the policeman sends it over an embankment and into a pond. Haze then returns home with a package of quicklime and blinds himself.
The whole sequence is utterly shocking and bizarre. But there is a deeper meaning and logic. Haze’s car is not just a car. Haze buys the car as a home, not just a means of transport. He also claims that “Nobody with a good car needs to worry about nothin’.” More strikingly, he declares that “Nobody with a good car . . . needs to be justified.” Here justification specifically means justification before God.
So in Haze’s mind, there is an equation between his car, his home, and a world without sin and redemption. Haze’s car is the material world without God, which he thinks is an adequate home, a view that O’Connor the Catholic presents as a delusion. Haze’s car is falling apart in front of him. He has three encounters with mechanics but is in complete denial about the wreck he is driving.
What is the connection between Haze’s car and vision, such that when deprived of his car, he deprives himself of his sight? Haze declares that his car “Wasn’t built by a bunch of foreigners or niggers, nor one-armed men. It was built by people with their eyes open . . . who knew where they was at.” Haze’s this-worldly metaphysics is correlated with an empiricist epistemology. Seeing is believing. In one of his sermons, Haze counsels forgetting the past and not worrying about the future. In short, live in the present, which can be seen with one’s eyes. (He also recommends hunting one’s conscience down and killing it. One only regrets the past.) Thus the loss of his car is a loss of faith in the faculty of vision. Thus Haze blinds himself to see deeper.
But why in the world did the policeman wreck Haze’s car? Just as the car is not a car, the policeman is not a policeman. To crack the Flannery O’Connor code, one needs to be on the lookout for unobtrusive acts of divine intervention in an utterly fallen and bleak world. The first such act is when a one-armed mechanic gets Haze’s car running again and asks nothing for his trouble. It doesn’t make sense in terms of the earthly economy. In the novel, the policeman who destroys Haze’s car has uncannily blue eyes. In the movie, he speaks with a strange gentleness and detachment. He’s more than a policeman; he’s an angel.
Why does the first angel (the mechanic) get Haze’s car started and the second (the policeman) destroy it? It has everything to do with Haze’s destination. In the first case, Haze wanted to get back to Taulkinham. In the second, he wanted to get away from it. Haze’s primary motive for buying the car is to flee Taulkinham. But the car also represents his flight from anything divine and non-material. God wants Haze in Taulkinham, because that is where Jesus will get him in the end.
The last act of Wise Blood is both moving and bizarre. Sabbath Lily wants nothing to do with a real blind man, so she runs off, leaving Haze in the care of Mrs. Flood.
Mrs. Flood is horrified to discover that Haze spends most of his time walking with rocks in his shoes, a form a penance he adopted as a child. He also wraps his torso in barbed wire. He does it because he “ain’t clean.” Haze feels the need to pay for his sins. Mrs. Flood declares “There’s only one kind of clean,” and Mr. Motes has blood on his shirt, blood on his sheets. Mrs. Flood will have none of it:
It’s like one of them gory stories that some people have quit doin’. Like boiling in oil or being a saint or walling up cats. I wouldn’t be surprised if you wasn’t some kind of a agent of the pope or g-got some connection with somethin’ funny. . . . You-you might as well be one of them monks. You might as well live in a in a monkery.
Mrs. Flood is right in her common-sense Protestant way. Haze is mortifying himself to get right with God on his own. But if that were possible, then Jesus and the church would be unnecessary. In short, Haze is still a member of the Church of Truth Without Christ. But if Jesus saves us through his suffering, then there’s no point in our “works” of self-mortification, which is why Protestants have quit doing such morbid things.
Mrs. Flood thinks Haze is crazy, and she’s probably right. She wants to be rid of him, but she needs his money. In the book, she hatches a plot: she’ll marry him, secure his pension, and then clap him in an insane asylum. But then something uncanny happens: Mrs. Flood actually comes to love him. She really does wish to marry Haze and take care of him. By omitting her initial plans, the movie obscures just how dramatic Mrs. Flood’s change of heart is, shearing away any sense of the miraculous.
When Mrs. Flood proposes marriage to Haze, he quietly gets up and walks off into a downpour as Mrs. Flood pours out her heart to him. This heartbreaking scene is beautifully acted by Mary Nell Santacroce. Mrs. Flood tells him not to return, but soon she is so worried that she calls the police, who eventually find Haze, suffering of exposure, and bring him back to Mrs. Flood. They prop him up on a daybed in her living room. Mrs. Flood tells Haze he can stay on his own terms, but there’s no answer. Hazel Motes is dead.
Wise Blood’s best features are its script and performances. Dourif is riveting with a seething, rattlesnake intensity. Stanton is loathsome. Beatty looks just like a hog. The hardest roles are probably Mrs. Flood and Enoch Emery, but they are brilliantly brought to life by Mary Nell Santacroce and Dan Shor.
The movie’s only real weakness is the director. John Huston delivered many classic films—The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The African Queen (1951), The Misfits (1961), The Man Who Would Be King (1975), and Prizzi’s Honor (1985)—in a transparent, prosaic, workmanlike style. He was no auteur.
Beyond that, Huston was not a religious man. He saw Wise Blood is merely a parody of superstitious hicks. Benedict Fitzgerald convinced him that it is a religious movie and that, in the end, “Jesus wins.” But in the crucial scenes where God intervenes, Huston was dead to what was going on. He gives us no clue that anything uncanny is happening at all.
The same is true of the score is by Huston’s frequent collaborator, Alex North (born Isidore Soifer), which leans heavily on “The Tennessee Waltz” and “Simple Gifts,” as well as a couple of cues that can only be described as “hick caper music.” But North gives us no sense of the uncanny when it would have added meaning, for instance in the scenes with the one-armed mechanic, the dying false prophet, or the policeman who wrecks Haze’s car.
Imagine how David Lynch would have directed Wise Blood. Lynch is a perfect director for O’Connor, since he shares her love of the grotesque, her affection for ordinary people, her humor and compassion, and her feel for the numinous. Lynch is a master of suggesting the presence of the uncanny. He has even worked with Brad Dourif and Harry Dean Stanton.
But even in the age of endless remakes and reboots, Huston’s Wise Blood is likely the only we are ever going to get. I had not seen Wise Blood since the ‘90s when I popped in the Criterion Collection DVD to write this review. I was surprised at how reactionary Wise Blood seems in the current year. I doubt that it could have been made today. So we should be grateful for this film, despite its flaws.
I recommend John Huston’s Wise Blood to serious-minded lovers of dark comedy and Southern Gothic. But, better yet, if you are a reader, skip the image and go straight to the original: Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. As the world slides deeper into decadence, O’Connor will increasingly be seen as a one of America’s greatest artists of the Right.