Simple without being simplistic, Night of the Hunter is a film that succeeds remarkably at being both art and entertainment, an effective thriller that also contains compelling themes and thoughtful exploration.
The villainy of the film is rather straightforward. Mitchum’s Powell is a serial killing circuit preacher who victimizes the family of a man recently executed for murder and theft. Powell is after the money, but only the children know its location. There is no great reveal of the villain, and no suspense of mystery. In one of Powell’s very first lines, he makes reference to “the killings” (and how God’s book is full of them). The suspense is not in the mystery. The suspense is in the situation – the audience knows the great danger that Willa, John, and Pearl are placed in, even while most of the film’s characters believe Powell to be a great and godly man.
There’s a powerful aura of danger for the children in this film, one that has only been matched in my viewing experience by Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Even before he makes a movie to commit any murder, he is rabidly abusive, both physically and verbally. This behavior of his is often juxtaposed to his fanatical religious appearance, intentionally so. In fact, his abuse is often couched in religious language – he viciously rejects his new wife on their wedding night for using her body to satisfy the lust of men (rather than for bearing more children). He uses the sin of lying in an attempt to manipulate the children into giving him the location of the money. And all the while, he continues convincing all those around Willa – and perhaps including Willa herself – that he is a good and godly man. Rounding out this extreme sense of “wrongness” that Mitchum’s terrific performance gives is his constant singing of the classic hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”
As cartoonish as Powell’s villainy often feels, it reflects reality more than we might like to think. It is a sad fact that abusers (in particular child molesters) victimize churches. Because Christians are typically more forgiving, and respectful of church authority figures, they’re easier prey. The way in which Powell beats down the sense of value and worth in his victims also fits the modus operandi of real-life abusers, and the psychological effect on said victims is realistically portrayed. Just as Willa finds a good interpretation of his behavior, and Pearl comes running back to him as “Daddy,” the psychological toll on victims of abuse is extreme.
But lest you should think that the film is representing a one-dimensional picture of religion as the abuser itself, we are introduced to Miss Cooper, a character that, despite being mostly archetypal, gives depth and balance to the narrative. When she’s first on screen, the film begins to feel less like a thriller/horror film and more like an episode of Little House on the Prairie. She provides a safe space for the children, and largely does not ask questions of them unless they are necessary. She responds with appropriate measures of harsh truth and deep compassion, and has enough intelligence to somewhat mitigate the film’s impression of women as being weak and easily manipulated. In her, a religious woman who tells the children Bible stories at bedtime, the film finds its balance. It is in the film’s most powerful moment, while our Hunter sings “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” in the middle of the night, that Miss Hunter sings with him, even while she sits on the porch with a shotgun to protect the children from him. But in her voice, there is no irony. She, a religious woman, fully intends to protect the children with her life. It is also Miss Cooper who utters what is perhaps the film’s most important line, giving that all important balance to the story’s perspective on religion: “You’re no preacher, neither.”
And yet, our analysis of the film does not stop there. These two characters – Powell and Miss Cooper, can be seen as opposing archetypes of evil and good, Satanic and Messianic figures. But it is in the lives of the people of the town that we see the part of humanity being played out. Not just sin itself and malevolent influences, but how those surrounding the family react to those things happening in real life. How do we react to victims when we see that wrong has been done? The reaction we see from the people is not goodness. It has the appearance of goodness, but like Powell, it is far from goodness itself. After pushing Willa into the second marriage to begin with, they call rabidly for the head of Powell. We can hardly say he doesn’t deserve it, but then, once he’s been taken away, they start a mob . . . and they try to get the children in on it.
It seems that there are two reactions to the horrible sin of Powell in the film. The first is whitewashing it, preferring to believe our authority figures infallible than to question their sincerity. This, as Jesus’s words to the Pharisees would indicate, is distinctly unChristian. The second, which is equally wrong, and perhaps even more damaging, is to use the victims as an excuse and outlet for our own rage, thus gratifying ourselves instead of helping them heal. And so, at the conclusion of this film, the probing question is not a simplistic one of the abuse of religion, but a more practical one: how will we protect the vulnerable ones among us? Will we be like Miss Cooper? Or will we be the mob?