Hazel Motes, played by Brad Dourif in a brilliant, physical performance, is a character John Huston would have had to create if O'Conner hadn't already written him. Aggressive and hissing like an angry cobra, Motes slithers his way into town from a stint in the army and begins yelling about a "Church Without Christ" that he will begin. He finds a believer in the young, brainless Enoch Emory (Dan Shor) who tells Hazel about the "wise blood" in his veins that tells him things no one else can hear.
Filled with vagabonds and the most reptilian of crooks, one of which is portrayed by Ned Beatty, the city of Taulkinham already has various street urchins, including one who preaches the powers of a hand-cranked potato peeler. But young Hazel becomes immediately obsessed and infuriated by a blind preacher (Harry Dean Stanton) and his coy, lustful daughter Sabbath Lily (an excellent Amy Wright). More than that, Hazel begins to search for his own Jesus with the help of Enoch, which begins a slow descent into a deep madness that makes being south of the Mason Dixon line about the same as being south of Heaven.
Huston, who was himself an atheist and has a brief role as Hazel's bible-thumping, tent-preacher grandfather, depicts the South as a world ruled and corrupted by the symbol, or idea, of Jesus. Hazel is an interesting creation because he believes in the reality of Jesus and the suffering he went through, but not his divinity. He hates the image of Christ because it is simply that: an image. He not only denies the idea of a church built with money; He gives himself license to smite those who do preach for pay. No less than Albert Finney's Geoffrey Firmin or Humphrey Bogart's Fred C. Dobbs, Dourif's Motes creates and embraces his own hell, eventually deciding to suffer the way Christ did.
Shot by Gerry Fisher, Huston hits a mood of deep rot and dampness, which is often betrayed by Alex North's strange, unruly score but is still continuously evocative. The gothic tones so detailed in O'Conner's novel are translated with no small amount of gallows humor and a taste for the delirious. Benedict Fitzgerald wrote the screenplay with Huston's regular producer Michael Fitzgerald and there's a disturbing simplicity to the imagery, especially that of Motes walking around with barbed wire wrapped around his chest. Ironically, Benedict would later go onto work on another tale of a man's obsession with another man's torment: The Passion of the Christ.
The writers and Huston make Taulkinham a microcosm but they restrain it enough that we never lose sight of Hazel, Enoch, and Sabbath Lily as they are swallowed whole by this city of decay. Under the gaze of a monstrous "Jesus Saves" sign, there is a bold uneasiness to the sight of a place so filled with the word of the Lord looking like it's the one place he completely neglected.
Run time: 106 mins
In Theaters: Sunday 17th February 1980
Distributed by: Criterion Collection
Production compaines: Anthea, Ithaca Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 89%
Fresh: 17 Rotten: 2
IMDB: 7.2 / 10
Director: John Huston
Producer: Michael Fitzgerald, Kathy Fitzgerald