Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif) has recently been discharged from the army after an injury he would rather not talk about and has headed home to Georgia. However, once he reaches his old house, he finds that his family are long dead and the place has been abandoned; in addition, since the highway was built there is a distinct lack of people around, as they have all upped sticks and headed for the cities, which is exactly what Motes does. On arriving there, he looks for somewhere to live but the best he can do is visit a whore and sleep in her bed. And then he gets in with the wrong crowd: religious folks...
Not given a wide release at the time, this was John Huston's adaptation of cult writer Flannery O'Connor's novella, scripted by Benedict Fitzgerald and Michael Fitzgerald. In Huston's hands, it was a grimly comic fable of a man inexorably headed towards a destiny that has been mapped out for him by - who? His preacher grandfather? The unscrupulous men of God around him? Or was it Jesus Christ himself who wanted a life of piety from him? Whoever was responsible, and it might simply be in Motes' personality, the manner in which he cannot get off the tracks he is heading down has a queasy focus.
Dourif, an offbeat actor at the best of times, is at his best here with a role that offered him something to get his teeth into. His Hazel Motes is self-righteous and driven, rebellious in his own way, but ironically doomed in his redemption. A chance meeting with blind preacher Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton) and his daughter Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright) as they beg for change sets Motes on his indignant path to create a better church than the one he sees Hawks following, and disgusted with the notion of salvation he ends up with the Church of Truth without Christ, number of members: one.
Although you could make that two, as Motes has a hanger on called Enoch (Dan Shor) who works at the zoo where he mostly annoys the chimps, yet when he meets this new holy man he feels he should find a Christ for him. Essentially this means stealing a small mummy from the local museum, but although Sabbath Lily, who has taken a shine to Motes herself, is impressed, treating it like a baby, Motes throws it against the wall, frustrated as always that nobody can understand what he's getting at with his philosophy. Everyone he attracts is in some way corrupt or just nuts, with no better example than Ned Beatty's minister Hoover Shoates.
Shoates wants to capitalise on this young man's forceful manner, but when he is turned down he pays another man to take his place and they end up gaining more attention than their rival. This is another instance of Motes being foiled at every turn, though his faith seems to be misplaced, even in his old banger of a car which he buys second hand and is deluded to think that it's in tip top condition in spite of regular breakdowns. The vehicle begins to embody all the things wrong with his religion, and it's only when he gives it up, or rather it is taken away from him, that he finds his way to God. In a dark fashion, this means self-mutilation in the service of his deity, and whatever humour has been present before has turned into a rictus grin. Wise Blood is an original, but you may be thankful that it is. Music by Alex North, which tends to misjudge quite how amusing the story is supposed to be.