Preaching the Church Without Christ, Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif) tells anyone that will listen that he wants a church that is free from salvation and dogma, a church "where the blind don't see and the lame don't walk and what's dead stays that way". With existentialist overtones, he says, `Where you came from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it." In John Huston's darkly satiric film Wise Blood, adapted from Flannery O' Connor's first novel, Haze is caught in a struggle between the obsessions of his past and his desire to live the truth.
The more he resists his rigid Christian upbringing represented by his fundamentalist grandfather, the closer he is drawn to it. No matter what he does, Jesus moves "from tree to tree in the back of his mind, the wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark." Raised in a predominately Protestant area, Flannery O' Connor was a devout Catholic whose novels and short stories paint a tragi-comic portrait of Bible Belt evangelism and the hypocrisy that thrives in decaying Southern towns. While the film is a human rather than a Christian interpretation and the ending is simply tragic without being spiritually revealing, it still remarkably captures the essence of the novel and, if nothing else, will send viewers scurrying to their nearest library.
Set sometime in the mid-twentieth century, Haze has returned from the war with a big chip on his shoulder. Without joy he returns to his family home in Eastrod, Tennessee but on finding it run down and deserted takes a train to the fictional Taulkinham. Here he is seen by everyone that he meets to be a preacher even though he strongly protests. Even the taxi driver tells him that his hat and "a look in your face somewheres" make him look like a preacher. Brad Dourif's appearance suggests Haze with a "nose like the shrike's bill, eyes the color of pecan shells and set so deep they are like passages leading nowhere." When he meets a blind street preacher Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton) and his fifteen-year old daughter, Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright), childhood memories are reactivated and he proudly tells them that he doesn't believe in anything.
With a zeal that might be described as the passion of the anti-Christ, Haze buys a broken down "rat-coloured" car that becomes the rock upon which he builds his new church, the Church Without Christ. Wearing a preacher's bright blue suit and black hat, Haze stands on the hood of his car and addresses a handful of stragglers, spewing his contempt for Christianity. "Listen you people", he says, "I'm going to preach there was no fall because there was nothing to fall from and no redemption because there was no fall and no judgment because there wasn't the first two. Nothing matters but that Jesus was a liar." When anyone criticizes his car, Hazel defends himself with the statement, "Nobody with a good car needs to be justified." Haze attracts an assortment of mostly unlikable characters: con-artists, frauds, and women without moral discernment.
While some are repugnant, others are simply amusing and the film remains watchable because of its savage humour and colourful language. For example, when one character describes the Welfare woman who cared for him, "She sho was ugly. She had theseyer brown glasses and her hair was so thin it looked like ham gravy trickling over her skull", and, "a red-haired waitress at Walgreen's has "green eyes set in pink" so that she looks like a picture of a Lime Cherry Surprise." One of the most compelling characters, Enoch Emery (Dan Shor), a slow-witted eighteen-year old with "wise blood" like his daddy, provides the comic relief. Enoch is so desperate for friendship that, mimicking the travelling Gonga the Gorilla show, he steals the gorilla costume and sneaks up on people hoping they will shake his hand. In another sequence, thinking it may be the "new Jesus", Enoch steals a shrunken mummy from the museum and gives it to Haze.
When Haze becomes fed up with the town and its inhabitants, he tries to leave but is stopped by a sheriff who tells him he isn't going anywhere and proceeds to push his car into a lake in a parody of the baptism ritual. His behavior becomes more and more extreme, having decided that he cannot live in both worlds, he chooses to live according to his convictions. Lacking the ability to express love, he internalizes the car's destruction and now sees himself as "not clean". He stuffs his shoes with glass and rocks and wraps barbed wire across his chest, then throws lime on his face. Suggesting a parallel with the story of Paul on the road to Damascus, he loses his sight but regains his vision. As strongly as he has denied Christ's presence, however, he now cannot resist it. In spite of himself, Haze achieves the grace that he sought to avoid.