Twelve years after pleading nolo contendere on Carson McCuller’s Southern Gothic REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE/’67, John Huston won his case with Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Baptist Gothic. A small film with major ambitions, it brings off the grotesque, crazed eccentricity of its religious con-men & fanatics in a straightforward manner, retaining much of O’Connor’s off-the-beat humor though, alas, with more pity than actual laughs. Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif with a welcome touch of Buster Keaton to him) is the returned soldier boy, off to the big city to spread the word on his Church of Jesus Christ Without Jesus Christ. Cluelessly confident, he might be Gershwin’s Porgy heading north to New York on his goat cart. But O’Connor’s great insight made Hazel a cultural insider in spite of his extreme actions, and Huston lets her full-blown cast of lunatics and down-and-outliers interact without coming off as precious literary consructs, but as fleshly characters. The whole cast & crew seem inspired under Huston’s controlled laissez-faire direction, while the lack of period flavor (undoubtedly the happy result of a very tight budget) keeps the material from easily distancing itself; instead, a Neo-realist vibe that’s hard to shake off. Only Alex North’s score lets down the side, not with its ‘Tennessee Waltz’ variations, but on some ill-advised comic background music better suited to a SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT telepic sequel.
SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: The Criterion DVD has a priceless EXTRA of O’Connor giving a short introduction before reading one of her stories to a university audience. Essential stuff, and very funny.