WISE BLOOD (John Huston, 1979)By grunes
Sin is a trick on niggers. . . . Jesus is a trick on niggers. . . . There is no peace to the redeemed. — Hazel Motes, in Wise Blood
The legacy of Christianity in the South is this: It was a method for drawing obedience from African slaves. It promoted the obscenity that such obedience (to the overseer’s lash, for instance) constituted a kind of discipleship to Jesus, holding out hope for an eternal reward no matter the hardship of the slave’s mortal lot.
Flannery O’Connor’s novel about the early twentieth-century son of a preacher man becomes a powerful film thanks to a good ol’ atheist, John Huston. This was the director’s own favorite among his films.
Hazel Motes, the protagonist, is also an atheist. This isn’t theology; this is human—a reaction against his preacher-grandfather. But Motes can’t escape the family business. A cab driver mistakes him for a preacher because he looks like one. Motes starts up his own church: The Church of Truth Without Christ Crucified, because Christ’s blood redeemed no one. This becomes The Church of Truth Without Christ.
Through a series of stark color images, Huston achieves a vision of an ordinary world whose religious underpinnings render it, first, absurd and, finally, tragic. It remains cinema’s finest exploration of the role of religion in the culture of the United States, especially in the Bible Belt.
Brad Dourif beautifully plays Motes. Shame on us! Despite his Oscar nomination for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman, 1975), we haven’t permitted this gifted actor the career we needed him to have. Nor have we been honest about the cruelty of Christianity in the American landscape.