John Huston’s Wise Blood depicts an American South caught between eras, where memories of slavery, religious evangelicalism, and destitution parallel growing modernization and urbanization. Racism and free-thought, progress and trauma, religion and capitalism are consistently at odds, creating an environment ripe for con artists posing as prophets. It seems everyone is looking for a cure, or at least an answer, especially Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif), a dynamic young man fresh out of the army hoping to transcend his grandfather’s extremist teachings and begin the Church Without Christ. Hazel enters the city naive and determined and immediately stands out to those eccentrics already entrenched in the vice of urban sprawl.
Together, Huston and Dourif make Hazel a dynamic force of uncertainty posing as strength, a twitching time bomb aching to exercise his past demons by starting a new vision of faith. It’s impossible to separate Hazel from his surroundings, since both character and space are equally tormented by the clash of various institutions, ideologies, and fallacies. This approach makes Wise Blood a fascinating and conflicted film, defined by tangents of indignation and hell-fire meant to highlight mood and atmosphere over traditional narrative techniques. Dourif’s great performance enters an exhausting psychological space forcing us to witness a degeneration of epic proportions. His noble intentions reveal damning cracks as selfishness and panic push friends away and embolden his enemies, isolating an already fragile incarnation. Finally, during a thick rainstorm that seemingly washes away the filth and faux-preachers, Huston paints a fitting and horrifying picture of limbo, a last compliment to Hazel’s philosophical demise.