(director: John Huston; screenwriters: from the novel by Flannery O’Connor/Benedict and Michael Fitzgerald; cinematographer: Gerry Fisher; editor: Roberto Silvi; music: Alex North; cast: Brad Dourif (Hazel Motes), Ned Beatty (Hoover Shoates), Harry Dean Stanton (Asa Hawks), Daniel Shor (Enoch Emery), Amy Wright (Sabbath Lily Hawks), Mary Nell Santacroce (Mrs Flood–Landlady), John Huston (Hazel’s Grandfather), William Hickey (Preacher); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Michael Fitzgerald/Kathy Fitzgerald; Criterion; 1979)
“Any film that features both Harry Dean Stanton and Ned Beatty as scam artists and its tale about religious hypocrisy borders on madness, is one not to be missed.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
John Huston (“Moby Dick”/”The Maltese Falcon”/”Key Largo”) directs this twisted offbeat philosophical farce that delivers some hilarious body slams to evangelism in the name of personal salvation. It’s based on the grim Southern Gothic 1952 novel of Flannery O’Connor. She wrote it as a parody of existentialism; it’s written with integrity to the book by Benedict and Michael Fitzgerald.
Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif) is an intense young soldier with a Purple Heart who returns from an overseas war (Vietnam? Korea? World War 11?). It’s difficult to exactly place the war our misfit antihero returns from. But he comes home to a deserted rundown farm in the Bible-belt south. After Hazel visits his hellfire-and-brimstone preacher grandfather’s (John Huston) grave and destroys his army clothes, the now orphan leaves by train for another nearby southern town. The troubled lad openly rebels against the evangelism and repression of his childhood and caustically states that he doesn’t believe in anything and that those preaching about Jesus are spreading lies. The aimless lad intends to do in his new home something he’s never done before. Since he dresses like a preacher and everywhere he goes there’s the influence of Jesus on the culture, he soon starts preaching on a street corner while standing atop his battered car about his ‘Church Without Christ’ and attracts a small crowd willing to give a listen to any wacko talk about Jesus. Hazel gets the attention of a lonely nutso moronic 18-year-old zoo worker named Enoch (Daniel Shor), a hanger on who is looking to follow any leader or just make some human contact; a slimy small-time hustling crooked smooth talking radio preacher (Ned Beatty), who wants to use Hazel as his shill to work the crowd for donations; a mean-spirited phony blind street beggar Jesus freak, Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton), a non-believer using Jesus to score donations; Asa’s revolting teenage daughter is Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright), who partners in his scam and is hot for Hazel and will do anything to snag him; and a lonely middle-aged landlady (Mary Nell Santacroce), who is so desperate for companionship that she wants to marry the self-righteous and obnoxious Hazel even after he has a mental breakdown and blinds himself in an act of martyrdom (driven to achieving a true Christian experience despite being an unbeliever).
Any film that features both Harry Dean Stanton and Ned Beatty as scam artists and its tale about religious hypocrisy borders on madness, is one not to be missed. The brilliant performance by a perfectly cast Dourif as the humorless fanatic who is misunderstood, is tragically funny and outright maddening and seething with an inner rage against society.
It’s a truly weirdo original pic, one of Huston’s best literary adaptations, that was acclaimed by critics, but was unfortunately a flop at the box-office.
REVIEWED ON 5/15/2009 GRADE: A