Wise Blood (DVD)
Time Out New York Project: Issue #710, May 7-May 13, 2009
The Criterion Collection, $39.95
Flannery O’Connor’s incisive sense of person and place is brilliantly captured in this 1979 film adaptation of her highly regarded first novel, which plays out as a broad comedy set within a timeless purgatory.
Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif, in one of his best performances) returns from an unnamed war to his ramshackle Southern farmhouse and discovers his family dead and buried. He remakes himself as a city street preacher whose personal quest—fostered by an abusive, evangelical childhood—is to establish a church without Christ. Hazel’s companions and competition include a blind prophet (Harry Dean Stanton) and his nymphomaniac daughter (Amy Wright), as well as a towheaded hanger-on (Dan Shor) who obsesses over a pint-size museum mummy and ends up running around town in a gorilla suit.
It could all be a blatantly ridiculous affair, yet director John Huston uses his working-class Macon, Georgia, locations to ground the absurdity and set the stage for a sobering final turn. Wise Blood was—and continues to be—labeled a Southern Gothic, emphasizing its supposed grotesquerie. What’s rarely considered is that O’Connor might have been writing more from experience than out of a desire to caricature. As coscreenwriter Michael Fitzgerald notes in a video interview on this disc, Southerners who read the novel tend to roar with laughter, but as a way of expressing recognition, not condescension. Even when channeled through fiction, this is a world that truly exists, and Huston pays vivid tribute to O’Connor’s vision.—Keith Uhlich