10 Dec 2009

Wise Blood (1979)

As critics were falling over themselves last year to rightly heap praise upon the masterpiece that is There Will Be Blood, the work of John Huston was frequently brought up as a reference point in their reviews. Many saw similarities between Daniel Plainview’s obsessive search for oil and the grizzled gold prospectors of Huston’s 1948 adaptation of The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, while others thought Huston’s own disturbing turn as the evil Noah Cross in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown was the ultimate inspiration for Plainview; his voice certainly seems to have influenced Daniel Day Lewis profoundly. Few mentioned Wise Blood however, and while it may be one of Huston’s lesser-known films it’s legacy is just as significant as anything else he made. 

Wise Blood’s demented depiction of the oddballs that populate America’s religious landscape make it one of the finest films on faith ever produced, and it certainly seems to have been a stimulus for Paul Thomas Anderson when he created the character of Eli Sunday. Eli, like many of the characters in Wise Blood, became a preacher for financial gains, a notion considered morally repugnant by our protagonist Hazel Motes. Motes is an army veteran who has returned home to the Deep South, and still suffering from the fire and brimstone sermonising that his grandfather inflicted on him as a child, has rejected Christ in all his forms and is only interested in setting up “The Church Of Christ Without Christ”, a church free from salvation and dogma of any kind.

Huston’s darkly comic film is a scathing indictment of the psychic price a rigid fundamentalist upbringing can have on you in later life, as the more Hazel rails against the sin and condemnation of his upbringing the more he begins to resemble the bug-eyed preachers he is ranting against. Through Huston’s bleakly cynical worldview organised religion is little more than a grown man queuing up to shake hands with an actor in a gorilla costume. 

Some sequences are less effective than others as the overall tone seems to flick between absurd comedy and intense drama, sometimes unnervingly so, but as a whole Wise Blood is undeniably powerful. It is so enigmatic that it almost suspends time and place, and Huston’s clinical direction, coupled with a truly astonishing lead performance from Brad Douriff as Hazel Motes make this an unforgettable cult cinema experience that will stay with you for days.

Matthew Kleebauer

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