Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Alternate Best Actor 1979: Brad Dourif in Wise Blood

Brad Dourif did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Hazel Motes in Wise Blood.

Wise Blood is an odd but intriguing  film about a man who gets involved in the preaching game in the south.

Brad Dourif often plays off kilter roles although more often than not these are supporting characters of the film. This is not the case for Wise Blood as we follow his character Hazel Motes throughout the film starting when we catch him after returning from some war somewhere now back in apparently where he came from to start his new life. The new life for Hazel Motes is not the type of life usually associated with a returning war veteran. It is common though that some character might be a bit emotionally damaged, which is certainly the case for Hazel Motes, but I must say that it seems that whatever he did as a soldier probably only contributed to some of what Motes does once he begins his life anew. I suppose that should be expected though when it is Brad Dourif who is playing the role though.

This is a performance that does not some time to settle to say the least as the first time I watched the film I was not sure what exactly to make of Dourif as well as the film. Dourif's performance is particularly obtuse here as his portrayal of Hazel Motes has a certainly a rather bizarre style to it. I suppose it is not helped by the path of Hazel Motes as a character which one probably would not describe as natural, and certainly would not describe as normal. If one were to read something about the film and just here it as a man trying to become a preacher one may think it was an Elmer Gantry type story with Dourif taking up the role of the charismatic preacher with a questionable past. That is not the case the case here as Dourif's plays Hazel Motes as not really the preacher type really, at least not the traditional type, well at least no in the type one would expect, well at least he's a strange one to say the least. 

Brad Dourif's performance is odd and in fact you might hate it or at least be baffled by it, but give it time as I did and there is something very special to be found here. The early scenes of the film shows Hazel Motes moving around the land seemingly in an aimless fashion as he dresses as a stereotypical preacher while naturally spending some of his time with a prostitute. Dourif's whole performance is a bit of enigma from the very beginning just as Motes is an enigma so it certainly is fitting. Dourif always brings this underlying intensity in his portrayal here that is rather piercing in nature even with the fact that Dourif is obviously not a the most menacing figure physically. The intensity in his portrayal is particularly effective in setting up Motes as obviously not a sane man. His method is quite different from the usual method of playing an insane person, or even the way Dourif usually plays them, but it completely works here.

There is a constant anger in his portrayal of Motes as he begins to interact with some other people most notably a "blind" preacher Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton), his daughter Sabbath Lily Hawks (Amy Wright), and a different sort of aimless young man Enoch Emory (Dan Shor). Motes seems to hate these preachers so much that he states his desire to make a church based around the idea of no church. This odd idea seems completely believable coming from his mouth as the anger Dourif expresses in every moment is so strong that it could compel this man to such a bizarre course. This is a madness to be sure but it is fascinating to watch because of how compelling he makes this behavior of Motes. It's not quite like anything normal yet Dourif makes all normal to this character, and truly an oddity that's hard not to watch no matter how angry and eventually even psychopathic the man may be.

One of the achievements of this performance is the charisma that Dourif does create in the role even though Motes is not a particularly likable man. The characters of Emory and the preacher's daughter seem to simply want to be near Motes despite the fact that his attitude toward them is not particularly pleasant in nature. This can be wholly believable because of Dourif and dark magnetism that he does bring to the part. In the scenes of his attempted preaching, which never seem to go well and always seem to be interrupted by someone, Dourif does bring something special in his power he brings to Motes. Motes really is not even saying anything particularly profound and certainly not inspirational in anyway as Motes seems to be motivated by hate and pessimism more than anything else. Dourif is able to bring power to the pessimism through his devoted performance that creates such a fervent passion in Motes's philosophy.

One of the difficulties in grasping this performance and this character is the seeming unchanging ways of the character for most of the film, and the fact that even when we do see changes the are so extreme that they are not exactly making Motes anymore of a character with whom you can easily relate. That's not the point of Hazel Motes as a character and definitely not the intent of Dourif's performance. This is an out of the ordinary character that gets center stage and Dourif never dulls him down to this instead goes about just being incredibly interesting by realizing this strange man so vividly. When Motes goes and does some truly odd things particularly at the end in his attempt at a spiritual? quest which ends up with Motes blinding himself, well because obviously that's the case. Well it does feel obvious and not at all opposed to Dourif who grasps his character so well here that even such seemingly impossible understandable event actually just seems a natural course for Motes.

I will freely admit that I'm not sure I know exactly how describe this performance fully, but all I can say is I loved what Brad Dourif did in this film. This is a performance that stand out as something to be viewed all on its own as Dourif allows us to witness the journey of this man, who one would never accuse of being normal. It's an extremely effective performance that takes the risk of keeping in line with who the character is and even technically risking being repetitive since Motes is rather steadfast in his beliefs. Dourif never takes the easy way out with his work yet he never makes Motes seem uninteresting in the least. I won't lie one watch is probably not enough to appreciate this performance for its worth, but give it time to settle and I think you'll see something special. This is a fantastic performance by Brad Dourif that rejects all common constraints and gives an impossibly intriguing portrait of one very memorable character.


Michael McCarthy said...

Ahhhhh you took my advice (I assume)! I completely agree with this assessment, and to address that comment in the last paragraph I think I would describe this performance as a strange combination of Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. I've also heard the film been called a black comedy Night of the Hunter.

Also just a random observation, does anyone else think that in profile, Brad Dourif looks a lot like Beavis?

koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

It sounds like a prototype to Phoenix in The Master in that he doesn't really have an arc, yet is compelling.

PS RIP Eli Wallach.

RatedRStar said...

RIP Eli Wallach, a true legend of film, has anybody here seen him in his star making work in Baby Doll, he was excellent in that, the only time he was in Oscar consideration.

As for Brad Dourif, I dont usually like him as an actor because the acts with a capital A, but here I thought he was great, the films good too, in that picture thats up he looks a bit like Warwick Davis lol

Louis Morgan said...

RIP Eli Wallach one of the most underrated actors of all time.

mcofra7 said...

RIP Eli Wallach

luke higham said...

R.I.P. Eli Wallach