Movie Discussion: Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955)

  • Monthly Theme: Classic Thrillersnight_of_the_hunter_xlg
  • The Film: The Night of the Hunter
  • Country of origin: U.S.A.
  • Date of U.S. release: September 29, 1955
  • Studio: Paul Gregory Productions
  • Distributer: United Artists
  • Domestic Gross: ?
  • Budget: $795,000 (estimated)
  • Director: Charles Laughton
  • Producer: Paul Gregory
  • Screenwriter: James Agee
  • Adaptation? Yes, of the 1953 novel The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb.
  • Cinematographer: Stanley Cortez
  • Make-Up/FX: Louis DeWitt & Jack Rabin
  • Music: Walter Schumann
  • Part of a series? No.
  • Remakes? Yes, as an ABC-TV movie in 1991 called Night of the Hunter, starring Richard Chamberlain.
  • Genre Icons in the cast? Yes. Genre star Shelley Winters (The Mad Room, The Visitor, etc.).
  • Other notables?: Yes. Hollywood star Robert Mitchum and silent film star Lillian Gish.
  • Awards?: Chosen for preservation by the National Film Registry in 1992.
  • Tagline: “The wedding night, the anticipation, the kiss, the knife, BUT ABOVE ALL… THE SUSPENSE!”
  • The Lowdown: This week, Charles Laughton’s one-and-only directorial effort, starring Robert Mitchum as Rev. Powell, a shiftless murderer and con man who preys on women. Locked up for a petty crime, he shares a prison cell with Ben Harper (Mission: Impossible‘s Robert Graves), who is sentenced to death for robbery and murder. After being released, Powell seeks out the doomed man’s grieving widow (Shelley Winters) and two small children, hoping to locate the unrecovered money Harper stole. But Harper’s headstrong young son John (Billy Chapin) – who knows where his dead father’s money is hidden –  is immediately suspicious of Powell and refuses to cooperate with him. Powell marries Harper’s widow Willa and murders her, forcing John to run away with his kid sister. They find refuge with a kind but tough older woman (Lillian Gish), but soon realize that Powell has not given up on hunting them down… Considered a classic Hollywood thriller, the movie is also renowned for its expressionistic qualities.

If you haven’t seen The Night of the Hunter our discussion will include massive SPOILERS. 

Sean: The Night of the Hunter…. Better than The Virgin Spring?

Kristine: So much better. It blew me away.

Sean: Oh, good. I thought you would dig it, but I can never be too sure.

Kristine: I declare it an American Masterpiece.

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Child stars often got their starts in Pepto-Bismol ads back then

Sean: I’ve seen it like ten times, and I still tear up when John grabs his stomach as the cops arrest first his dad and then later Rev. Powell.

Kristine: Oh, God, I know. John was fantastique.

Sean: Also, I live for Pearl.

Kristine: What? 

Sean: Live for her.

Kristine: If you had told me about her little song on the floating skiff (“But one day these two pretty children flew away into the sky, into the moon”) I would have vomited, but when it happened I actually loved it. I did not live for Pearl, but she definitely grew on me. I live for Rachel.

Sean: Rachel is also amaze. That’s Lillian Gish.

Kristine: I know. But whom I really live for is Robert Mitchum. He is scary as fuck, but also hilarious and weird and unsettling and freaky and amazing.

Sean: Oh, I agree. Mitchum owns it.

Kristine: What about when Rachel shoots him with the shotgun and he squawks like a crazy pterodactyl and hops out the front door and over the fence and into the barn? His is literally Yosemite Sam in that moment. And what about when he is watching the burlesque show and obsessively flicking his switch blade/phallus and then it rips his pants? He made me die 10,000 times.

Sean: Yes, he’s amazing. The cast is almost uniformly great.

Kristine: Shelley Winters is good, too. 

Sean: I actually think Shelley Winters is pretty bad.

Kristine: You didn’t like Shelley? I think she’s good in her role. Explain yourself. 

Sean: I don’t know, I guess I just thought her line readings were bad…. The one that really made me slap my forehead was how she read the line: “I feel clean now. My whole body’s just a-quivering with cleanness.” Terrible. So wooden, like she’s speaking her lines phonetically. 

Kristine: Heh. 

Sean: And her rant to the congregation about how her materialist greed drove her dead husband to a life of crime… I like the idea of the character, but I just don’t think she’s a very gifted actress. She was good in the mirror-shaming scene, though.

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Raggedy Anne discovers she’s a real girl at the end of Pinocchio 2: Bride of Pinocchio

Kristine: Oh my god, the mirror shaming. That scene was tremendous and horrifying. “That body was meant for begetting children. It was not meant for the lust of men”? I died. Overall, I thought her trajectory was weirdly believable, and her flatness… I agree that it’s there, but it worked for me. There is such an odd combination of artifice and realness in this movie, overall. Like there are 2-D, super-expressionistic set design in some shots, and then gritty realism in others. Rev. Powell’s insane theatrics and posturing… but then getting his fingers slammed in the cellar door.

Sean: Yeah, the movie is really stylized – which is one reason why audiences and critics both hated it when it came out in 1955. But it was reevaluated later (just like Peeping Tom) and is considered a total classic now and has been hugely influential on a whole generation of filmmakers. Which brings me to a bit of trivia: What classic 1980s American film quotes extensively from this movie? 

Kristine: I don’t know. I need hints.

Sean: The movie is set in the “ghetto.” And a key character performs Mitchum’s “Right Hand/Left Hand” speech.

Kristine: Oh, do you mean Do the Right Thing

Sean: Yes. Radio Raheem. 

Kristine: That makes sense to me, actually, because both movies are these classic commentaries on American society, no?  I think both The Night of the Hunter and Do the Right Thing have things to say about mob mentality and the mores of a contained society… But I think both films are actually interesting for their character studies more so than their sociopolitical commentary. Do you agree? 

Sean: Oh god – that’s very well said. Yes, I agree completely. I think the least interesting parts of both movies are the more mechanistic, “social commentary” elements. 

Kristine: I agree. For both movies I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I get it’… but I really wasn’t invested in that stuff so much as the souls and struggles of the characters. Both movies make you fall deeply in love with the individuals that populate their respective worlds and that, in my mind, is where they gain their power. And if any of the socio-political commentary works, it’s because the vividness of the characters is so well-established.

Sean: Buggin’ Out, Jade, Radio Raheem, Mookie, Sal, Mother Sister, Sweet Dick Willie, Tina…

Kristine: John, Pearl, Icey Spoon, Uncle Birdie, Ben, Willa, Rev. Powell…

Sean: So I would suggest that there are two things we have to talk about… 1) Rev. Powell as repressed homosexual/queer predator and 2) the construction of female sexuality in the movie, especially as evidenced by Icey Spoon.

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The tykes find out the boogeyman DOES live in the cellar

Kristine: I am down with that plan. If we start with Rev. Powell, and what kind of villain/monster he is, I myself am torn between wondering if he was a repressed homosexual or just an impotent misogynist. 

Sean: Well, but that’s the thing. Don’t you think that the movie conflates those two things?

Kristine: Right. Well, those two things are historically, and problematically, conflated.

Sean: But whatever he is, he is not a normative, healthy heterosexual man. I mean, “Perfume-smellin’ things, lacey things, things with curly hair”?

Kristine: That speech. It’s like a twisted version of “that’s what little girls are made of.” 

Sean: Oh, good call. Yes, that’s exactly it. And it’s not just that he is indifferent to women, Powell is openly disgusted by women. I think, in 1955, that he would have read as homo-queer to audiences. Like, “What the hell is wrong with him?” Remember on his wedding night to Willa, he is revolted by the thought of the having sex with her? He says, “You thought that the moment you walked in that door, I’d start to paw at you in that abominable way that men are supposed to do on their wedding night.” Again, he is grossed out by what “men are supposed to do.” That is so fraught with queerness, it seems like more than just blanket male misogyny to me. It might just be about the limits of my imagination as a viewer, but I cannot understand or really imagine a male heterosexuality that is predicated on being disgusted by women. To loathe female sexuality like that… I’m just not sure what to make of it. But also, it’s not just Powell who seems revolted by women – the two teenage hooligans whom Pearl sneaks out to visit also seem to hate her as much as desire her. And when Powell can’t charm the children away from Rachel, he quickly reverts to ugly misogyny, calling Rachel and the girls in her charge “Devils! Whores of Babylon!”

Kristine: Did you love when Rev. Powell breaks character (one of the many times) and calls Pearl a “poor, silly, disgusting little wretch”? I was laughing.

Sean: Oh my god I know. Powell menacing the children is like, my favorite part of the movie overall. But don’t you think that just adds to Powell’s queerness? His hostility towards the kids is not “normal,” and I think it takes on a perverse subtext because he pretends to like them in public, but in private he openly loathes them. He’s “closeted,” if you will, and in constant danger of being caught/found out/unmasked. As Rachel asks when Powell first shows up on her farm, “How you figuring to raise them two without a woman?” He is a peculiar man, all the more peculiar because we know he is not a potential nurturer to John and Pearl as he pretends to be, but a death-bringer, a grim reaper. That whole scene where he’s calling John a meddler and is like, “Take a look at my knife, kiddies.”  I read a lot of subtext that he’s a sexual predator, a rogue male who is “whipping it out” for the children. I think the movie toys around with the “rogue male” trope and is actually very hostile towards masculinity. Remember drunk, pathetic Uncle Birdie? 

Screen Shot 2013-08-19 at 3.52.03 PM
Chimney sweeps

Kristine: Yes, and the emasculated husband of Icey Spoon. See, I don’t even remember his nam. 

Sean: Oh, he is a nonentity. But his chugging on the brandy made me laugh. 

Kristine: If I lived with Icey Spoon, I’d be bathing in that brandy. 

Sean: But didn’t you think the ultimate project of the movie is to create this ultimate utopian mother-space? A sacred matriarchal haven where the masculine is deposed and rejected? 

Kristine: Kind of… I mean, certainly all the men are either ineffectual (Uncle Birdie, Ben Harper, Mr. Icey Spoon) or evil (Rev. Powell), and Rachel acts as both nurturing mother-figure and strong, protective father-figure. She is the all-encompassing, genderless and/or multi-gendered entity. But she surprised me with how she didn’t demonize men or sexuality, i.e. with Ruby. I was really struck by Rachel’s compassion and kindness towards Ruby after she confesses her (albeit chaste) dalliances with men in town. Rachel says, “You were looking for love, Ruby, in the only foolish way you knew how. We all need love, Ruby. I lost the love of my son, I found it with you all. You’re going to grow up to be a strong, fine woman, and I’m going to see to it that you do.” She does a couple of interesting things there – at the moment when you think someone like Rachel – Christian, devout, traditional – would shame Ruby, she instead affirms her worth and humanity. And she also parallels her own broken relationship with her son to Ruby’s romantic travails. In Rachel’s eyes, we’re all questing for love, acceptance and affirmation, in all of our relationships – with our lovers, with our parents, with our children, with our siblings. In some ways, Rachel is a true and distilled vision of Christian sentiment – powered by love and compassion, strong and firm but full of forgiveness.

Sean: I agree, and I find the movie’s blending of humanism with Christian sentiment to be really refreshing. It is filled with Christian allegory – it strongly suggests that John is destined for greatness, as Rachel parallels his arrival in the skiff with the story of Moses (and remember, John asks Rachel to revise the story so that two kings arrive as babies in the story, not one, which Rachel does – Pearl is that second king who must be added in; a feminist revision, if you will, that Rachel is more than happy to make). The movie’s aesthetics are so biblical, especially all the hymns and prayers and lullabies and verses from scripture. But the movie’s heart is a humanistic one. If anything, I think the movie disavows Powell’s fire-and-brimstone Old Testament perspective (remember that in the very first moments of the film he addresses God and openly excuses his murdering of women because the Bible is “full of killings”) and embraces a more Christian-hippie/”Love Is the Answer” kind of mentality.

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Powell tries to hide the hair on his palms

Kristine: When Powell says, “Now watch and I’ll show you the story of life. These fingers, dearhearts, is always a-warring and a-tugging, one against the other” – that’s everything we need to know about Powell’s worldview and his take on religion. His cosmology is one of a universe at war and in conflict, of shadow-selves doing eternal battle against one another. He has a martial and punitive vision of the universe. Think about how John is portrayed as heroic and good as opposed to Powell – even John embraces the Christian tenant to “love thy enemy” at the end when he collapses in tears over Powell as he’s being arrested. John finds compassion for the man he most hates – he’s really the only male in the movie (besides his own father, Ben) shown to be a decent person. Do you think he only gets to be strong and noble because he is pre-pubescent?

Sean: Well, yeah, for sure. He is a boy, a not-yet-man, so he is not yet “sullied” by masculinity yet. A quick aside – do you agree that John is the most likeable and best child protagonist we’ve seen since Danny Torrance?

Kristine: He’s pretty good. 

Sean: I guess I just think it’s notable that this movie poses happiness as a matriarchal space with no father figure around. I mean, what is the horror of this movie? It’s of being a fatherless (and later, motherless) child and being mired in that perspective, that of The Child, right? Being powerless and at the mercy of adults who are nefarious or stupid or tragic? 

Kristine: I think you have summed it up. John and Pearl are totally at the mercy of ridiculous decisions made for them by others, and those decisions are being made for the worst reasons. Like, Willa marries creepy Rev. Powell, why? She doesn’t want a husband. It’s because Icey Spoon bullies her into it, out of Icey’s perverted sense of piety, her deifying a “man of the cloth.” I’m glad you brought up Danny Torrance, because it’s making me realize that he and John are in very similar straights, right? 

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John takes that Miss Jenny for a ride at last

Sean: Yes, totally. In The Shining, Jack is “not dad” anymore by the end of the movie; Powell is literally not John’s dad. They’re both plagued and hunted by pretenders (very Shakespearean when you think about it), by beings posing as Fathers, who are most certainly Not-Fathers. This is classic “uncanny” stuff here, as Freud defined the uncanny as “something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.” So that idea that the uncanny is something contradictory in that it is both familiar and alien at once – or it is something alien that has about it the whiff of the familiar. So both Jack in The Shining and Rev. Powell in The Night of the Hunter are uncanny patriarchs, carrying about them some familiar and comforting paternality that is overlaid with a frightening and dangerous alien aura. Both boys are simultaneously repelled and attracted to the father-figures, best evidenced in The Night of the Hunter by John’s emotional break-down (-through) when Powell is arrested. At that moment we understand that through the whole movie one of the reasons Powell is so repulsive to John is because of his reminiscence to the lost father figure – the man put to death by the state at the beginning of the movie – whom John has a repressed longing for.  The idea of the father itself, and the longing for it, is the thing that must be and is repressed by John (and maybe also by Danny Torrance – does Danny ever show any warmth or love towards Jack? Are not all their “father-son moments” ugly parodies?)

Kristine: Isn’t this what Rachel means when the owl kills the rabbit and she remarks that “It’s a hard world for little things.” That’s the thesis statement of the movie, right there. That doubling of the paterfamilias with the predatory owl swooping down on the defenseless hare… That says a lot about this movie’s worldview and its opinion of the male gender. As Rachel says, Rev. Powell is just a “mad dog of a man.”

Sean: Yes, and all of her dark Bible stories about children-in-peril, which Rachel herself acknowledges when she says, “It did seem like it was a plague time for little ones, them olden days, them hard, hard times…” But the picture also contains hope, like when Rachel tells John, “When you’re little you have more endurance than God is ever to grant you again – children are Man at his strongest. They abide.” And the movie ends with Rachel repeating herself, saying “They abide and they endure.”

Kristine: True, but the movie is so powerful in capturing the helplessness of being a child. You aren’t believed, you are at the mercy of these crazy-ass adults. Ugh. Nightmare. Aren’t you glad childhood is over? As bad as I am at adult things, I would never want to be a child again. I think people who yearn for their childhoods are fucked in the brains. 

Sean: A couple of things just to conclude the Powell-as-queer-figure discussion: Would you agree that Mitchum camps it up in his performance? I’m thinking of the way he delivers his story to Rachel about losing his wife to dens of “Sodom” down the river, and when he is like, “Oh, them poor little lambs. To think I never hoped to see them again in this world. Oh dear Madam, if you was to know what a crown of thorns I borne in my search for them stray chicks.” And the flamboyant way in which he wipes mock tears out of his eyes, but also so Rachel will notice the letters tattooed on his fingers. He plays Powell as a foppish dandyman for a lot of the picture.

Kristine: I agree. Don’t forget his operatic poses in the moonlight coming through the bedroom window right before he slits Willa’s throat. 

Sean: Oh my god – totally. I can imagine Vincent Price in this role, going full-flamer. 

Kristine: Yes. Or… Kevin Spacey. 

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The temple of misogyny

Sean: But with Mitchum in the role the character becomes so much weirder and more complicated and riveting, because he brings his masculine swagger to it and a real sense of menace.

Kristine: He is really attractive but totally repulsive. Love it. 

Sean: Agreed. Also, do you agree that John’s dad is presented as a “noble” figure? (Quick aside: he was hot).

Kristine: I mean, kind of… I didn’t really care much about him. I didn’t really like or buy Willa’s explanation that she had forced him into the robbery because of her desires for material things, nor was I that invested in Ben’s explanation that he stole because he was tired of the poor going without. I don’t think his story or motivation is that important, really. I would say I read him less as noble and more as tragic (but who cares). His only purpose, to me, was to set the stage for the drama and to totally traumatize John for life and give him permanent daddy issues. You? 

Sean: Well, when we brought up Do the Right Thing you said that both movies are “classic commentaries on American society” and I think one of the stories that The Night of the Hunter is trying to tell about America concerns its fathers and patriarchs. I think the movie is trying to offer an explanation or dramatization of why the fathers are missing or absent…. John’s father is “driven” to crime by the Depression, and so he is exterminated by the state, leaving his family vulnerable to Powell’s machinations. That seems like a key element to the movie – the point that socioeconomic realities create this post-apocalyptic landscape where the fathers are dead or debauched (evil Powell, pathetic Uncle Birdie, emasculated Mr. Icey Spoon). The movie’s a cautionary tale, and the “wound” it is interested in healing or resolving is the wound of Ben’s death and absence for John.

Kristine: Again, I see all that as true, but I am just not as interested in it as I am in the characters, and why they do what they do. I do want to point out how successful the movie is at constructing a truly menacing, terrifying villain in Rev. Powell, even when he is also foppish and ridic beyond all belief. My favorite instance of that is when John sees Powell in silhouette on horseback in the landscape and John is all, “Doesn’t he ever sleep?” Powell’s slow, unrelenting ability to track his prey is so scary.

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John Wayne that ain’t

Sean: Agreed. He’s the Big Bad Wolf (and Rachel, in the movie’s prologue, quotes the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing bit from the Bible in reference to him). I see a lot of parallels between this movie and The Virgin Spring, actually, from the overloading of Christian themes to the basic plot of predator and prey. Powell and those three goatherders play essentially the same role: the predatory man-monster(s) waiting in the woods, hungry to consume and destroy women. If anything, these movies both could be read as feminist warnings, Second-Wave polemics that read man-as-monster, pure and simple.

Kristine: I agree about the similarities, but it doesn’t make me any more fond of The Virgin Spring

Sean: Poor Bergman. 

Kristine: Sorry, Bergs.

Sean: Well, let’s move on to the movie’s construction of female sexuality. I was wondering if you think the film presents Willa’s sexuality as normative. We are clearly meant to think that both Powell’s and Icey Spoon’s attitudes towards sex are aberrant and weird… Right? 

Kristine: Right. I absolutely think so.

Sean: When Icey Spoon says, “I been married to my Walt [40 years] and I swear in all that time I just lie there thinking about my canning. A woman’s a fool to marry for that. That’s something for a man. The Good Lord never meant for a decent woman to want that, not really want it. It’s all just a fake and a pipe dream.” Kristine, in place of a vagina, Icey appears to simply have… a cannery.

Kristine: Heh.

Sean: Even in 1955, audiences would laugh and roll their eyes at that speech, right? 

Kristine: Yes.

Sean: Good. So then, this movie is criticizing the “trap” women find themselves in, right? Of being both shamed and valued for their sexuality?

Kristine: Yes. 

Sean: When Powell basically psychologically assaults Willa on their wedding night, and is like, I will not fuck you unless you want more kids.  And says things like, “The body of a woman, the temple of creation and motherhood!” I was dying.

Kristine: Oh, I know. And for all the times Rachel points out that children are beset upon by the world and thus are made strong, the movie itself seems to point out that women are also viewed as prey. In fact, the movie is guilty of infantilizing young women, don’t you think? Especially Ruby and Willa.

Sean: Um, yes. Willa is an empty-headed ninny. And Ruby just like, sleepwalks around with her vagina on fire. Even though, in her defense, those evil teenage boys she goes to rendezvous with were sort of gorgeous. It cracked me up that their 1930s Depression-era outfits were like, what half of the hipster guys in America are wearing right now.

Kristine: Oh, I know. The bowties? The deep-V-necked striped sweater sets? The hairstyles?

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Fuckable

Sean: They were exactly the kinds of boys that would have broken my teenaged heart.

Kristine: This movie.

Sean: I think the movie’s second-biggest villain after Rev. Powell is Icey Spoon. Do you agree? She is the kind of woman who perpetuates and supports the patriarchy, undermines and castigates other women, and is also a gigantic hypocrite (like how she was so hot for Powell when he first arrived, but once he’s arrested at the end she turns into just another thug in the mob, screaming for blood).

Kristine: Agreed. Though Icey did sort of crack me up when she’s going on and on about how Willa better “catch” Rev. Powell for a husband. “She’s not the only fish in the river!”

Sean: “Shilly-shallying around!”

Kristine: “A husband’s one piece of store goods you never know till you get it home and take the paper off.”

Sean: “That young lady better look sharp or some smart sister between here and there’s gonna snap him up right from under her nose.”

Kristine: The way Icey Spoon talks about men as a commodity is a refreshing change of pace. And I love how dirty the subtext of all her comments are. “Take the paper off.” She’s a perv.

Sean: She’s a total perv but she’s also… So depressing. The image of her lying there getting plowed while she shifts uncomfortably and makes a mental inventory of her pantry… It’s too dark. She’s anti-sex, as is Powell, and that marks them as villains. One of my favorite things about this movie is that, at it’s core, it’s pro-sex. Willa and Ruby’s erotic imaginations are what’s “normal.” Hachi from Onibaba would approve.

Kristine: I guess… but the movies still contains some ideas that I don’t love. Don’t you think this movie holds up children (as well as the all-powerful maternal savior) as the only worthy beings in society? 

Sean: Well…. I guess. Are you like, this movie is pro-child propaganda. 

Kristine: I think I am saying that.

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The Devil shows His face

Sean: I am dying.

Kristine: I am saying that. And I don’t like it. 

Sean: Why don’t you like it? 

Kristine: Because it’s very Republican/Conservative to me. You know, care about the innocent fetus/baby, but not about the 13-year-old girl who is pregnant. Any value system that casts you aside once you are sexualized or have lost your innocence in some form or fashion is not for me. Also, it does not address the underlying social problems we’ve been discussing. It just says: Children are good, adults are bad; end of story. 

Sean: I am open to this complaint, but I need you to spell out for me where the movie seems to not care about women and “casts them aside.” Because I thought the movie was making a very pointed critique of “casting aside” women, as represented by Willa.

Kristine: In that none of the female characters get to have value except for Rachel, and that is because she has devoted her life to children. Remember when she says, “I’m a strong tree with branches for many birds. I’m good for something in this old world, and I know it, too.” Her value is not about expressing her inner essence, right? It’s about protecting children. If she didn’t do that, she wouldn’t have value, correct?

Sean: Well, this is sort of what I was driving at with the utopian mother-space stuff…. The way this movie mythologizes The Mother and fucking deifies her is kind of over the top ridiculous.

Kristine: Yes. It also loops around to our discussion of Powell as a possible repressed homosexual. I mean, Powell’s lil’ switchblade’s got nothing on Rachel’s big ole shotgun, right? I thought that visual was funny. Ultimately, “good” and “evil” are hardly fairly matched in the movie, the way they are via Powell’s fists. 

Sean: Great point. Her gun is the megaphallus. 

Kristine: Totally.

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Grandma With a Shotgun

Sean: Genderqueer. Love it. But this is actually something that I like about the character of Rachel, and how she is a sort of “queer” figure in the cosmology of the movie, someone who is very much situated outside of heterosexual destiny. Most obviously, it’s her status as matriarch/caretaker – she’s a head-of-household and a defender in a way that belies the gender stereotyping that marks or curtails all of the other female characters. But just Rachel’s general attitude about heterosexuality is one of compassionate disdain. She continually refers to straight women as “fools” for being drawn to/sexually attracted to men. I think it’s easy – and almost compelling – to read Rachel as a kind of lesbian figure, though she’s more stripped of sexuality than she is imbued with queer desire. But she’s got many elements of the butchie dyke figure, and that disdain for heterosexual unions is the most overt example. Remember when she brings the children to town and she spots a man and woman couple with their arms around each other on the street and she sort of mockingly smirks and says, “She’ll be losing her mind to a tricky mouth and a full moon and like as not, I’ll be saddled with the consequences.” I love the reference to the full moon, almost as if heterosexuality itself is monstrous, a kind of werewolfism that overtakes and then permanently stigmatizes women. It’s a “curse.” Rachel as sexless, genderqueer mother figure is there to clean up after the “mess” of heterosexual unions, and the feckless, irresponsible way in which straight men and women conduct themselves.

Kristine: And remember when one of Rachel’s charges, Mary, sees her own mother in the street and the woman runs over and fawns all over her and is like, “Ta! Have fun existing!” and runs away? And Rachel speaks sternly to the woman, saying, “Don’t forget your visit on Sunday and you’re coming to church with us!” Then she says, “Women is fools, all of them.”

Sean: One of the mottos of this movie is, “Straight isn’t great.” A big part of that is what terrible parents straight people are to the children they produce. That’s why I almost feel like any negative queer stereotyping that might be attached to Rev. Powell is balanced and mitigated by Rachel, another queer figure who is benevolent and powerful. It almost becomes more about gender – men are predators, women aren’t.

Kristine: I want to add that I think this movie is a real stylistic triumph. I don’t think I have even close to a complete understanding of what was behind all the stylistic choices, but I do know that everything worked for me and everything was amazing. And I usually don’t go for super-stagey styling. We haven’t even discussed Shelley Winters in the river.

Sean: Ohmygod that image. What about Uncle Bertie’s description? “Down there in the deep place with her hair waving soft and lazy like meadowgrass under floodwater, and that slit in her throat like she had an extra mouth.” Kristine, extra mouth.

Kristine: I know. Gory and grotesque but beautiful, right? Both the image and his description? 

Sean: Yes. This movie is a total Southern Gothic in those respects.

Kristine: Agreed. What about the Huck Finn-ishness of the kids floatin’ down the river? So Americana.

Sean: Yes. 

Kristine: This should be shown in every U.S. History class in high school.

Sean: For Pearl, mostly.

Ratings Roundup

The Girl’s Rating: Masterpiece! AND Stylistic triumph AND This film IS America

The Freak’s Rating: Masterpiece!

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