Directed by “Jhon” Huston
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 106 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: May 12, 2009
Review Date: April 29, 2009
“Jhon” (as it’s misspelled deliberately in all of the opening credits) Huston’s Wise Blood is an odd duck: a quirky, moody, offbeat character comedy-drama with a bare wisp of a story but more eccentric characters than one can “shake a stick at,” to use a colloquialism dear to the hearts of many Southerners where this strange tale takes place. A provincial gem of no specific era or location, Wise Blood will alternately charm and confound you. It would be best to just let the movie wash over you without thinking too hard about its goals and motivations. It’s a true original.
Wiry, angry GI Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif) buys a new nineteen dollar suit and hat, stuffs his army uniform in the nearest trash can, and sets out on a crusade to find the truth. He knows no one and trusts no one, but everywhere he turns in this Georgia town, he sees evidence of rampant spirituality with churches, tombstones, and religious messages scrawled on rocks, trees, and billboards. He deeply distrusts organized religion and decides to preach his own kind of dogma, a religion that displaces Jesus from its message in an eternal search for goodness and righteousness. Along the way he meets a cadre of idiosyncratic characters: Enoch Emory (Dan Shor) who’s so starved for friendship that he takes up with anyone who extends a hand, “blind” con man-street preacher Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton) and his daughter Sabbath (Amy Wright), a slick preacher huckster Hoover Shoates (Ned Beatty) who thinks Hazel’s spiel is a gimmick he knows he can exploit, and his landlady (Mary Nell Santacroce) who finds the mix of earnestness and brittle innocence in Hazel endearing and enticing.
John Huston’s direction of the screenplay by Benedict and Michael Fitzgerald (based on the first novel of Southern gothic writer Flannery O’Connor) couldn’t be simpler or more ingratiating. He presents this screwy set of characters simply and honestly without winking at the audience or demeaning their absolute sincerity about what they’re doing. (Alex North’s sprightly score does seem to have more fun at the characters’ expense.) Thus, the comic opening two-thirds of the movie and the later much darker closing third ring true with a genuineness that makes the film’s unique oddity seem both refreshing and ultimately cathartic.
Brad Dourif ‘s driven persona as Hazel Motes has a wildness about it that’s unsettling, and his character’s epiphany is frankly a shock, a dash of ice cold water in the audience’s face that’s a complete surprise. Dan Shor’s Enoch ‘s desperation to find a friend is one of the joys of the movie though his disappearance later on is a disappointment. Amy Wright brings a dazed simpleton quality to Sabbath Lily while her polar opposite, the landlady played by Mary Nell Santacroce, offers a very believable motherly concern to her role. Ned Beatty and Harry Dean Stanton, along with Dourif the most recognizable names in the cast, add their own masterful oddness to their unconventional characters.
The film has been framed at 1.78:1 and is anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. Color saturation is very pleasing for the most part though flesh tones veer a bit on the pink side. Sharpness is usually excellent though there are a few moments where softness leads to some slight smearing. The film has been divided into 13 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 track exhibits no instances of hiss, crackle, pops, or flutter and is a typical sound mix of its era. Dialog is clearly and cleanly recorded and is never overpowered by Alex North’s playful music score.
The film’s original theatrical trailer is presented in anamorphic widescreen and runs 2 ½ minutes.
Three 2008 interviews are offered on the disc: star Brad Dourif speaks for 13 ½ minutes on his casting for the film (he was originally offered Enoch and held out for Hazel), writer-producer Michael Fitzgerald talks for 20 ¼ minutes especially about his family’s friendship with Flannery O’Connor, and writer Benedict Fitzgerald talks for 13 ½ minutes about writing his first movie. All of the interviews are presented in anamorphic widescreen.
An audio recording of Flannery O’Connor reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” her 1955 short story, is available for listening. Recorded in 1959 at Vanderbilt University, the recording lasts 37 ¾ minutes.
“Creativity with Bill Moyers: John Huston” is a 1982 25 ½ minute PBS mini-biography/interview with the great director, then working on the movie version of Annie. It's presented in 4:3.
The enclosed 13-page booklet offers a cast and crew list, some evocative black and white stills from the movie, and an essay by novelist Francine Prose on the coming together of the various factions that produced such an unusual film.
One of the little seen gems of John Huston’s filmography, Wise Blood is memorably quirky. The Criterion release offers a beautiful transfer of the film and some worthwhile bonuses that make it a package I can heartily recommend.