Spawned from a desire to capture the ambiance of the American South, Andrew Douglas’s Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus proves to be an atmospheric investigation into the surreal, artistically inspirational mixture of religiosity and criminality that hangs like a pall over the rural communities of the country’s lower half. Douglas’s tender and terrifying film is an impressionistic pseudo-documentary interspersing confessional interviews, staged scenes, and musical performances with leisurely travelogue footage of its backwater community settings. Imbued with an otherworldly vibe largely absent from his torpid remake of The Amityville Horror, it coasts along like a twangy country music melody, a seductive, slightly melancholy mood amplified by the participation of alt-country musician Jim White as the film’s guide and de facto narrator. In the film’s clear-eyed portrait, the South is revealed as a place in which Christ, mysticism, superstition, and the yin-yang forces of the sacred and the profane combine, creating a delicate blend of the real and the unreal, the known and the unknown.
“Choose Jesus or choose hell” is White’s summation of the options afforded to those who live in these impoverished parts of the nation, an opinion echoed by prison inmates who concede that available recreational pastimes for good ol’ boys like themselves (namely, poor, uneducated denizens of ramshackle small towns) are limited to attending church or frequenting a watering hole. The paths of the devout and the deviant constantly intersect in these run-down locales, where even the pubs and fried catfish joints are adorned with signs informing visitors or passersby that “Jesus Saves” and “Jesus is Coming.” In White—whose album The Mysterious Tale of How I Shouted Wrong-Eyed Jesus spurred the making of the film—Douglas finds a bluesy conductor (in a gigantic 1970 Chevy) for his magical musical ride through the misty swamps, school bus-littered junkyards, and off-the-highway bars where drugs, sex and Pentecostal passions freely mingle. A California native who embraced the South (“an enveloping culture,” as he puts it) as his home in order to become “closer to God,” White has a laidback wisdom that, in its simplistic folksiness, only very occasionally borders on country bumpkin affectation.
There’s an unvarnished openness to White’s affection and awe for (as well as disappointment with) his adopted region that, when complemented by performances by (among others) Johnny Dowd, David Johansen, and White himself in diners, motel rooms, and barber shops, creates an enveloping, sensual sense of time and space. Via its glimpses of toothless boozehounds shimmying to classic rock in darkly lit dives and zealous churchgoers convulsing, crying, and speaking in tongues during Sunday morning sermons, Douglas’s detached camera (functioning as a fascinated, bemused spectator) presents a world straddling a fine line between reverence for heaven and fondness for hell. As White says, a place’s essence can’t be grasped by looking directly at it; it’s in the blood of its inhabitants, on the edges of one’s senses, on the periphery of one’s vision. And thus it’s no surprise that somewhere deep within the very fabric of the film’s gnarly tapestry of anecdotal stories of death and heartbreak, lyrical landscape cinematography and plaintive homegrown songs, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus truly captures the bewitching, somewhat unsettling spirit of the South.