It’s fitting that all of the press materials for Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus feature a quote from Talking Heads frontman, filmmaker and cultural icon David Byrne, because the 2003 picture shares many similarities with Byrne’s 1986 effort, True Stories. Both films piece together vignettes via the poetic observations of a narrator, and both explore all that there is to love, hate and be afraid of in the American South.
While True Stories was all fiction, however, Wrong-Eyed Jesus is somewhat of a documentary. Sure, there are staged performances from American alt-country songwriters like 16 Horsepower, Johnny Dowd, The Handsome Family and Jim White, the latter of whom also serves as the wiser-than-his-years narrator.
What could have been a visual contextualization of a No Depression review is instead a remarkable and subtle tone poem, as British director Andrew Douglas largely avoids narrative, instead allowing the vacant buildings, breathtaking landscape and haggard country folk to create a stunningly coherent visual portrait.
So what is the film about? Superficially it comes across like an examination of modern folk music, but the film is actually a meditation on morality, mortality and the existence of God in the American South.
That spirituality is framed around the common Southern proverb of getting devilish on Saturday night and repenting on Sunday morning. Douglas and White explore that dichotomy by embracing both the dark and the light: local prisoners talk about how and why they turned to crime; attendees at a bar balance stories of extreme drug use with their confidence in heaven.
On the flipside, the overtly charismatic side of the southern Pentecostal evangelicals is explored as the filmmakers sit in on revival healing services, Christian radio shows and frank discussions of faith with church deacons.
The film succeeds because it doesn’t editorialize. While other explorations of evangelicalism get bogged down in apologetics of faith and interpretations of what is real and what isn’t, Wrong-Eyed Jesus adheres to the simple premise that, within the American South, the spiritual side of Christianity, along with hell’s promise of fire and brimstone for the unsaved, is a tangible reality. Those two extremities are as real as the overgrown bushes, shimmering lakes and rusted out trucks.
If anything’s wrong with the film, it’s that it probably could have used a more solid structural background. The combination of stunning visuals, American folk music and real people’s stories make for a compelling tapestry, but much of the film is tied together with the poetic discussions of musicians and now-deceased novelist Harry Crews. Sure, much of their dialogue is fittingly poetic, but there are moments where it’d be nice to hear a sentence that isn’t steeped in intentional profundity. In fact, every element of the film could be interpreted as some sort of metaphorical device, which, after a while, can get a little exhausting.
It’s a small complaint for a film that ultimately succeeds in capturing the magic timelessness and pervasive weirdness of the South. Balancing American folk music, spirituality and engrossing visuals, there’s little question that Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus will make a believer out of you.