I found this to be a fascinating and blackly funny yet also a rather unlikeable film (although my only problem with the actual film itself were the rather too forced and desperate "zany music cues" that HistoryProf notes above, almost in opposition to the black humour elsewhere and the dry wit on display in the Flannery O'Connor audio recording on the disc), perhaps more interesting to discuss than actually watch. Yet it is definitely a film that I want to revisit a few times in the future and see how I react to it again - this time in particular I was struck by those opening photographs being a less militantly political and more religious (yet with the same kind of subversive humour) version of the photos at the end of Dogville and Manderlay; as well of that opening hitch-hike to the decrepit family home being a kind of return of the repressed that felt very similar to the opening of Track 29 years later.
The 'return of the repressed' is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film, though I think it could more precisely be called the "Methinks the lady doth protest too much" film! The suggestion is that the more militant you are about your anti-religious (not exactly the same as aetheist) qualities that the more it is exposing your deep fascination with the subject you are hating on so much. I suppose we could also see the same thing going on with the casual racism that shows that black people, like Jesus, are never far from the character's minds! I also think that this ties in with the language in an interesting way, with all of those Southern-style double negatives "You ain't no friend of hers are you?", "But if you didn't know and I told you, you'd know now", "If you join this church, nobody's going to be ahead of you. Nobody's going to know something that you don't know" (a statement worthy of Donald Rumsfeld if ever there was one!), "I ain't got no place to be", and so on, which are constantly affirming a statement by denying it twice over.
It is also about the possibility of becoming something through pure force of will, and whether that is actually possible or not, maybe all down to the misunderstanding about the hat that looks like a preachers' in the taxi cab planting the seed. I like that the Chuch of Truth Without Christ Crucified is less about being anti-religion but about Hazel Moat dragging Jesus off of the cross to make some room to get up there himself! That I guess makes Enoch and Sabbath his apostles, each struggling with their own issues and temptations too, I suppose.
Or maybe Enoch and Sabbath are elements of Hazel himself - they all espouse things that, like Hazel, they then come to problematically confront head on: Enoch's quest for human contact being constantly thwarted leads him first to mock the monkeys at the zoo about being better than them, needing the validation of being better than others, but eventually in a recognition of the similarities between himself and the caged animal he ends up in the monkey suit himself, still ostracised. Sabbath and Asa are taking the opposite trajectory from Hazel, going from faux-holier than thou piety to revealing that they are performers (and in Sabbath's case, taking the role of parody Mary with the dessicated mummy, the mummy also standing in for her alterior, thwarted desires for a relationship to take care of her and family to take care of - Sabbath is kind of the major figure of the three women of the piece: the prostitute and the landlady bookending her), and then bolting when confronted with someone who has really blinded themselves. Someone who has taken the joke too far, much as Enoch had removed himself from human contact entirely by donning the monkey suit.
Perhaps it is telling that in the confrontation between Hazel and Asa on the steps of the church, that the 'normal' churchgoers are passing by while they are being courted by both extreme ends of the spectrum, extremes who both eventually swap ideological roles, suggesting the inconsistency of extreme positions against the constancy and disinterest of the middle ground.
I particularly like the way that the line between hucksterism and supposed piety is underplayed, but still plays a big role with Asa's blind act along with Hazel's dream sequences which play like a cross between a outdoor revival meeting and a carnival freak show (with Huston himself playing the fire and brimstone preacher/carny ringmaster who seems to have had a pervasive influence on Hazel for the rest of his life. This element, combined with the final self-blinding reminds me, not just of Oedipus Rex as mentioned in the interviews, but also of the gory "If thine eye offends thee, then pluck it out!" climax to X-The Man With X-Ray Eyes) and then spilling into real life when Ned Beatty's Hoover Shoates tries to monetise Hazel's sermons and then to usurp him with a doppleganger preacher - a doppleganger all the way down to the car he is using as a pulpit to preach from! But the doppleganger preacher's car works better and has more gas to keep going under its own steam, while Hazel's is always in danger of running dry!
So the doppleganger needs his car to be run into a ditch and killed before he takes over Hazel completely! Is it murder motivated by hatred of a separate person, a commercialised parody of Hazel's intensity, or of the revelation of a part of himself possibly becoming successful at the act of a preacher? An exposing of him as a fraud (which is something that Asa and Sabbath revel in), which after the wonderfully comic scene of the policeman rolling Hazel's junkheap of a metaphorical car into the local lake (thus cementing the relationship between Hazel and the doppleganger), necessitates Hazel carrying out a much more extreme act to prove his worth.
Yet that act involves copying Asa's trademark one (albeit doing it successfully!), which immediately turns Hazel into another doppleganger! Someone whose intensity and naivety doesn't allow for half measures or the performance of a symbolic act without it having to really be carried out - someone who didn't realise that the magic trick was just a trick, and would have been just as effective as a trick, and ends up doing it for real. Much like the guy in the gorilla suit putting on a show in front of the movie theatre for excited kids who aren't fooled for a minute but like the spectacle, only to be confronted by an earnest man-child like Enoch trying to strike up a conversation with the monkey!
I like the comment Dourif makes in the interview about the film being about a Catholic's view of what a Protestant martyr would be like. That view, at least from the film, would seem to be of the martyr being naive and rather self-aggrandising. The interviews suggest that Hazel's conversion is a sincere one, and I do not really doubt that it is from the character's point of view, but the film to me appears to be suggesting a rather shocking level of self-delusion, as if by sheer force of will and self-mortification that Hazel can become a new prophet, or even the head of his own Church himself. Finally become Lord and Master of his own destiny and his home - yet he will always be someone else's tenant in a decrepit boarding house, or abandoned at the side of the road for his sins.
In a strange way like My Own Private Idaho, only the highways running through the scenes and off out of the picture (roads that Hazel finds it impossible to take to escape at a couple of points during the picture) seem to be pristine and new.