But, as I mentioned, there is some dark stuff here. Hilliard’s initial street-corner evangelizing appears to have a positive message: Stop relying on some distant, impersonal God in the sky to give your life meaning; recognize the divinity within yourself. “Let’s be different,” he pleads. “Let’s not hate anyone.” These are admirable sentiments. But if every man is a god, then it follows that there is no God, so Hilliard appropriates the title for himself. As his followers begin to worship him, the madness grows. He indulges his every lust: for women, for power, for money, for fame. He abuses and rejects his loving family. He sees himself as exalted far above the “masses.” He forces a disillusioned follower to commit suicide. He becomes, simply, a horrible person.
Another actor might have had difficulty finding even the tiniest shred of something salvageable in “God” Hilliard. But Carey draws on his innate ability to bring humanity to the lowest of the low. The physical and emotional intensity he invests in the character is often painful to watch. When Hilliard wails inconsolably over the coffin of his recently deceased mother, the scene is made even more heartbreaking by the knowledge that Carey’s mother, Ida, passed away during filming.
Hilliard’s emotional state is so fragile that the death of his mother causes him to question everything. He challenges God to the ultimate showdown in one of the most audacious sequences ever filmed. The outcome of this conflict is still hotly debated by fans of the film. Does “God” win, or does God win? Or, perhaps, does Satan win? I know what I think. See the film and make the call yourself. And prepare to be dazzled by Timothy Carey, the holy fool with the heart of a poet and the vision of a prophet.