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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Wise Blood of Jesus Bears It Away
by Donald Levit

If you live in New York City, or Chicago, San Francisco, Boston or some such, and want to see something to scare the bejesus out of you, this is it. For anyone who might wonder why the Union is in the State it’s in, English music video and commercials director Andrew Douglas’ Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus will clue you in, chillingly.

Although it stays physically within that most mythic Gulf Coast to Appalachia, the implications ripple way beyond, to an “Upsouth” encompassing upstate New York, downstate Illinois, central Pennsylvania, the Northern Plains and Rocky Mountain states, inland Pacific Northwest. That is, to where a begrimed coal miner affirms “the Maker meant man to live [and not] on city concrete”; or to another’s proud half-mile-wide don’t-blink hamlets with ranch houses, lawns, jails, schools and churches, ringed by mobile homes, cut-and-shoot pool-tabled bars like Slim’s (“we’re all family”), graveyards of the rusted automobiles and yellow tire-less school buses, gas station-cum-convenience stores, and Harley Davidson “hogs” bearing armed, paunchy, not-young men in black.

A road -- as distinct from Interstate -- trip but not a road movie, the film approaches, introduces, then tags along with “Alt” Country singer-songwriter Jim White, born a universe away in Southern California, raised in Pensacola, traveled in Europe but pulled back to understand the South like “find[ing] the gold tooth in God’s crooked smile.” The phrase is his and in two directions encapsulates this astute, visually and socially observant documentary: man’s conceptualization of the Almighty -- which will be considered later -- and the powerful metaphor-making genius not only of sophisticated White but of country folk who cut to the bone more neatly than educated snobbery cares to admit.

Retailing the way to cook possum, read Sears Roebuck catalogues or consider bird “spit” in the mouth of a “young ‘un,” or paraphrasing Goethe, they are shrewdly aware what they are about. Our “guide” White understands them, how his ice-cream cone represents rural stratification, knows that you need to drive a patched ’57 Chevy, not a Lexus or Land Rover, if you would see into the heart here, and haggles for the sixty-five-dollar plaster Jesus that will protrude from the car’s trunk.

The Jesus, the God, hereabouts is of passion, blood and violence. None of your Presbyterian or Catholic deities or Virgins, so lacking “a sense of the heart, of things beyond the mind,” but white Pentecostal fire-and-brimstone, speaking-in-tongues, ecstasy and soul music that outsiders mistakenly believe the sole province of blacks. There is music throughout, by likely and unlikely people, in likely and unlikely places: the earthy, almost-talking, seemingly off-key shape-note-head/monophonic but always haunting, misnamed Scotch-Irish wails, keens and laments appropriated by post-Kingston Trio balladeers in urban college coffee shops.

And there is blood, and bloodcurdling tales, in naïve roadside diner-church murals, in casual recollections of a skilled banjo picker whose hands spattered a ceiling when cigarette ash hit dynamite, of swamp snakes, axes, guns and knives, roadkill and “ordinary insane Southern lunatic[s]” who wound up preachers or prisoners. Far from cutesy feudin’ and fussin’ and a-fightin’ of pop song, the falsity of comic Hollywood and TV hillbillies, the soap opera of Margaret Mitchell’s noble knights, these are the Gothic nights of Twain, of McCullers, Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor.

Grim at times but almost always humorous, and with sympathy for backwoods, backwaters and their inhabitants, White is an illuminating Stage Manager. Verbalizing or listening to these people’s search for Heaven where “the Devil’s alive,” he does not condone, but neither does he condemn; he accepts the desperation of those who have little, acknowledges those who act “in extremis,” sees the preacher someone suggests in Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, and looks for “the best, saddest songs, stories, you’ll ever hear.”

Jimmy Tuck’s Chevy must be returned and Jesus left alongside the road. There are other journeys to be made, songs to be sung. For us outlanders who feel our terrain reduced daily, the journey of revelation has only just begun, to that unknown Heartland that sprawls from California to the New York island.

(Released by Shadow Distribution; not rated by MPAA.)

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