Bright Lights Film Journal

An Atheist’s Guide to Wise Blood: The Doctrine of the Auto-Redemptionist

“It’s almost as if The Misfit himself were behind the camera.”

As a lapsed Christian I find myself concurring with evangelicals far more than one would expect, or than I find comfortable. Of course, my views on same-sex marriage, abortion, church and state compartmentalization, et al. play the anticipated oil to the water of the religious right, but one viewpoint that I share with, counter-intuitively, the most ardent fire-and-brimstone of believers is a tsk-tsking condescension toward the hopelessness of the human race. The Bible is a veritable manual of self-hatred; born into sin, mankind is doomed to wage a losing internal battle against its malevolent instincts. We can’t help but be seduced by evil, and even in the cleansing bath of Christ’s compassion it’s assumed that we will continue to fall — our pernicious activity requires perpetual clemency until we expire and are definitively judged for our deeds and motives. To indulge in a political sidebar, this renders the fusing of American conservativism with Christianity a gross puzzlement, since the very nature of “small government,” at least in theory, implies that society is noble and responsible enough to assist itself: Not precisely a Scriptural concept. Only the most realistic of liberals hold the more Biblical notion that democracy is a cruel joke in the hands of the mass populace, and that people require, if not a God, then a level-headed legislature to protect them from themselves and issue draconian, if not totalitarian, proclamations from on high.

One suspects that John Huston found similarly surprising shared territory when he adapted Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood into a feature-length film. Just as the very title of O’Connor’s most anthologized yarn “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” seems predisposed to humanitarian disillusionment, so the author’s prose fixates acidly on the most ostentatiously unredeemed (O’Connor being one of the most vocal God-fearing writers in modern literature) — a subculture Huston’s films seem equally preoccupied with. He had made perhaps the quintessential greed-to-perdition flick decades earlier with The Treasure of Sierra Madre — which possessed a scope of doom so mythic and epic that misanthropic filmmakers are still emulating it — and carried this despondent ethos quite nimbly into the 1970s. Seven years before the incendiary soothsaying of Wise Blood, the director made Fat City: A sleepy, pugilist’s ode to Stockton, California, and an existential critique of the psychology of the big win that beat both California Split and lesser boxing flicks like Rocky to the punch (so to speak). Huston was, in other words, the perfect heady atheist match for O’Connor’s grimacing Jesus-toting; it’s almost as if The Misfit himself were behind the camera of Wise Blood.

And indeed, O’Connor’s book is a focused starting point for such fiery social philosophy. The self-destructiveness of Humphrey Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs and Stacey Keach’s Tully seem potent enough until one gets a whiff of Brad Dourif’s Hazel Motes — his anti-religious fury makes lusting for money or technical knockouts seem like a casual hobby. Dourif’s performance is sharply concentrated; blasphemy is the only thing that ever crosses what remains of Motes’ mind after returning from war (what he may have seen, or done, while abroad is left piquantly shrouded). Early on in the film, Motes’ car — a hunk of junk he fools himself into treating as a reliable set of wheels — stalls near a laconic testimony (“Jesus Saves!”) etched with chalk into the rocky side of a hill. After a magenta-filtered flashback depicts his grandfather (Huston himself with the usual sense of magisterial turpitude) delivering a Plutonian sermon, an angry trucker alerts Motes to the fact that his automobile is holding up traffic. “Jesus is a trick on niggers,” Hazel replies in what becomes his usual non-sequitur fashion, but even more significant is that the trucker doesn’t seem to give a rat’s ass. He orders Motes again to hightail it, and the young man twistedly converts the order into a faith-based directive for him to rebuke. “I don’t have to run away from nothing because I don’t believe in nothing,” he says.

When Hazel makes the leap from angry young caricature to anti-Christ preacher by hopping on the roof of his car amidst the downtown foot traffic and belting out stentorian nonsense about the “Church Without Christ,” the reaction from the public is largely detached curiosity, if not complete apathy. This is a curious reception from a presumably postwar Bible Belt audience (although the film resembles 1970s Los Angeles, which immaculately updates the joke — why do you need to preach the death of God in a city that seems to have been founded to forsake him?), and intensifies the oneiric quality of the allegorical undercurrent. Beside faux-blind street preachers like Asa Hawks (played with talismanic gusto by Harry Dean Stanton, above) Motes seems like just another hard-peddling ideologue: a sympathy-getting sideshow for suckers and idiots like the buffoonish Motes adherent Enoch Emery, whose puerile compulsions were profoundly intimidating in the novel (Dan Shor inhabits the part more for comic relief, which becomes the film’s sole misstep).

With this carnival-like dramatis personae Flannery O’Connor was clearly attempting to align the hypocrisy of money-grubbing men of God with the self-denial of iconoclasts like Motes — as though asking us whether men who sell the legitimate celestial Truth are more damnable than those who refuse to accept cash for pissing on it (Hazel is staunchly non-profit, and at the story’s climax even murders a “Church Without Christ” impersonator for slapping a price tag on his patent-pending blasphemy). The film, however, came after the American sexual revolution and Constitutional strikes against national purity (or ignorance, depending on your point of view) such as Roe v. Wade and the widespread shift to evolution pedagogy: The socio-political climate was, in other words, more congruent with Motes’ prophesy than with his subtext of self-doubt. This forces a surreal mania upon the audience — particularly modern viewers that might be screening the movie for the first time in the 2000s — and underscores Motes’ elfin visage with esoteric symbolism. He’s neither an atheist hero with status quo-challenging sermons nor a Christian nightmare of a wolf in fox’s clothing (sheepskin being rather out of style). He’s more like a found art piece, a character borrowed from a Sartre play who has designed his own hell and resolved to occupy it prematurely. And, as with Buñuel, his Atheism is inexorably tangled with Judeo-Christian motifs. Even the title of his denomination is a rejection — a reaction — rather than an independent assertion, which not only foreshadows Motes’ fatal obsession with Jesus but exposes his identity’s reliance on Abrahamic hierarchy.

Detractors of O’Connor — though there aren’t many — primarily focus on her work within the context of the Southern Gothic style (a kind of satirical, near-magical realism with grotesquely exaggerated antebellum stereotypes), but as with Faulkner her stories only seem like crude parables before one exfoliates the withered surface layers (a confused criticism John Huston has also had to make peace with). Hazel Motes, particularly as depicted in the film adaptation, is an exemplar of this disarming technique: His mannerisms seem the product of dulled mental faculties that churn the same bitter reaction formation endlessly, expelling the overflow through an echolaliac mouth. His behavior is enticingly simplistic — as is, in fact, the histrionics of the entire cast — despite the recondite moral inquiries clashing in the plot’s basement. O’Connor and Huston both favor characters with all-consuming goals, and their narratives can often be understood, at least in a cursory fashion, as a series of conflicting and unyielding personal objectives (most of which, particularly in the case of near-noirs like The Maltese Falcon or Prizzi’s Honor, are hazardously anti-social). Hazel Motes is anomalous for both artists because in spite of his singular infatuation, he individually represents the central dialectic of Wise Blood: He is both the murderous Misfit and the crotchety grandmother from “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” both masochistic in his uncertainty and stuffed beneath the hat with filial memories that egg on his brash flaunting of false confidence.

In his photography of Motes, Huston fails to match O’Connor’s dead-on witty free indirect discourse, but the dusty, ghost-town-like exteriors and low-rent, over-weight whore apartment buildings transpose the solemn zaniness of the novel into a more believably planate visual scenario. Perhaps it took an atheist such as Huston to take weirdos like Asa Hawks and Enoch Emery entirely at face value. Hawks’ underage daughter Lily, who becomes Motes’ instructor in sin, is portrayed like Lolita’s homely, brain-damaged sister by Amy Wright in a wiry, eerily seductive performance. Hazel seems drawn to her for her bulbously nubile looks but intends to use the relationship to distance himself even further from the notion of a “soul” or “conscience” (transcendental tenets he wants desperately to evict from his mind). Only Enoch Emery, who offers an odd mummy to Hazel’s church as a new crucifix (Motes immediately destroys it), is off the mark. O’Connor drew the title of her novel from Enoch’s self-proclaimed dumb intuition — a paranoid barometer of subtle atmospheric shifts narrated feverishly in the omniscient third person. Huston makes Enoch’s exploits seem too pathetic; when he sneaks into the nearby zoo museum to steal the mummified totem, the soundtrack pulses with jauntily rib-poking fiddles and whistles.

But Huston redeems himself from the half-baked comic interludes with the pensive third act, when Hazel Motes blinds himself and becomes a sullen, mute martyr with nails and screws in his sneakers and a skin-pocking undergarment of barbed wire. As in the book, the satire’s corrosive circle closes with excruciating exactitude as Motes aspires to become the very Christ that he viciously claimed earlier was unneeded. Some may see this as an attempt on Motes’ part to absolve himself of the debauchery he had previously wallowed in: At one point he even tells his landlady, who develops a curious crush on his monkish asceticism, that he is “unclean,” and Huston additionally remarked that “Christ wins” at the end of the film. But this would reduce the tale to a mere duel between Motes and Jesus with a definitive victor at the outcome, which, while certainly a possible interpretation, is far from the most useful one.

As an atheist who hates to see Jesus win anything, I naturally prefer to read the dithered denouement of Wise Blood as a slightly more ambiguous cautionary plot-turn. Hazel Motes preaches in the middle of the film: “The Church Without Christ don’t have a Jesus but it needs one! It needs a new Jesus! It needs one that’s all man, without blood to waste!” As with the secularists whose entire spiritual foundation consists of defiling others’ sacred objects, Motes’ rejection of Christianity is more superficial and semantic than ideological. This exercise is gradually revealed as a painful harbor for Motes’ religious-based childhood trauma, but whatever the psychoanalytic motive for the detrimentally derivative churchly framework, it cannot at all serve the social purpose Motes appropriates it for. As much as he runs from the institution of sin (even running, paradoxically, right into its chubby, meretricious arms), by the end of the narrative it’s clear that his philosophy has essentially left the basic Christian schematic of profanity intact while subtracting the balancing agent: Jesus. This leaves a gaping hole in his theological creed that requires crimson spackling by Motes himself as a kind of sacrificial goat — he, in effect, becomes the new Jesus without blood to waste, because the burden of forgiving himself for his errors becomes too exasperating. My reading essentially runs perpendicular to O’Connor’s (which one can glean from her preface to later editions of the novel): While she felt atheism had failed Motes due to immutable, innate proclivities (not only in the protagonist but perhaps in all men), I feel that Motes fails to embrace and promote atheism properly. What he practices is not so much nihilism as guilt without the opportunity for redemption — when what is truly required is freedom from the unnatural standards of holiness, and a method of evaporating the stressful dichotomy of sin and righteousness. It never occurs to Hazel Motes that the most effective method of rejecting Jesus might be to simply forget about him.

Still, I do see the allure in Motes’ Malthusian doctrine, as undoubtedly both O’Connor and Huston did. Whether by the grace of God or one’s will, life requires a bottomless reserve of patience and grace, not only to be doled out to the follies of one’s fellow man but to the eternal failure of the self — perhaps the latter most of all. Even leaning on the strength of Jesus, who seems to be at times merely the fruit of understanding and forgiveness personified, we all feel like baptizing ourselves in quicklime now and again. As the slogan of Christian cynicism reads, “God loves you, and I’m trying!” I passionately agree with the second part: It might as well be my epitaph.

Note: The Criterion Collection released Wise Blood on May 12th, 2009 in a stunning single-disc package. The film has received a full digital restoration, and in particular Gerry Fisher’s economical use of color throughout has been lovingly revived — the burnt yellows and pasty reds seem suggestive of a bell pepper grove outside Eden’s gate. The disc also features several pieces of supplemental material, including interviews with Dourif and screenwriters Benedict and Michael Fitzgerald (who, interestingly enough, had known O’Connor in their childhood). ThisWise Blood issue additionally contains quite possibly the most engaging literary curio in the entire Criterion catalog: Scratchy audio of Flannery O’Connor reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. There’s also a lengthy TV special on John Huston narrated by Bill Moyers.