Preachers in American fiction are usually not to be trusted -- Elmer Gantry might steal from you, the priest in Mystic River might kidnap you, Robert Duvall’s Sonny in The Apostle might kill you; but they'd all fall like jelly before the witness of Robert Mitchum’s Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter (1955), one of the greatest films about prison injustice and its community antidote, just released on DVD (www.criterion.com).
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And as for grandmothers -- there's the sweet, wise one in Parenthood who calms Steve Martin down by telling him that life’s a rollercoaster; there's the sharp one in Driving Miss Daisy; and there's Lillian Gish, playing Rachel Cooper in The Night of the Hunter. She stands guard over the children Powell is trying to steal from, and the question of how she will save them is what compels us to keep watching. She does it by speaking, for this is an art film about the power of the word: Powell is threatening because of the way he talks. Grandma Rachel defeats evil by telling Powell he isn't welcome in her house. A child creates an unbreakable bond by giving his word to his dad at the start of the movie. The wound in the film arises as much from what people say (kids mocking our protagonists, the children of an executed man) as what they do.
It's a film of light and shadow falling in the Appalachian mountains, the shadow implying the existence of a monster on every American corner. Yet Grandma Rachel's words are a comfort. She enacts love itself, and answers the obsession with bloodletting in American popular culture by living without fear -- in short, by being a grandmother.
It may seem strange that some of our most nurturing relationships come from people who are themselves closer to death; perhaps good grandparents recognize that being close to death is also being close to love. Powell thinks that he is love and hate embodied, but he really just doesn't know himself at all. Grandma Rachel, on the other hand, near death and therefore unafraid, knows that her persistence will transcend his cruelty. Grandma Rachel teaches us to sing to make ourselves less afraid. We may fear that nothing will protect us, but Grandma Rachel is a "strong tree with branches for many birds." She knows that pain is a part of life; she has suffered loss, but this wound is what has opened her to loving anyone who needs it. She understands the difference between money and contentment, between accountability and revenge, between violence and strength. She is what America needs, for she believes that innocence trumps cynicism. Her hymn will win.
Gareth Higgins is a Sojourners contributing editor and executive director of the Wild Goose Festival. Originally from Northern Ireland, he lives in Durham, North Carolina.