Sunday, May 26, 2019
SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
If you haven’t had the pleasure of watching Wonder Boys (2000) you should treat yourself by viewing this clever story directed by Curtis Hanson, who made the excellent LA Confidential. The writing is marvelous and both Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire should have received Oscar nominations.
Besides referring to those who succeed in art at an early age, the title could refer to artists, and in this case writers, who use their imaginations to create as they “wonder” about what they observe. Great artists do not copy reality, but instead enhance upon it. But, observing and not participating often makes artists outsiders. They can become dysfunctional in some ways, not being able to deal with day-to-day life. This story deals with authors, and good writing requires tough choices if it is serious, and should not be self-indulgent. However, sometimes the self-absorption of authors can lead to inflated egos and pretentiousness.
Appropriately for a story about writing, Douglas’s Professor Grady Tripp (the last name referring to his drug use, or taking a vacation from life?) is reading stories written by his college creative writing workshop students. The voice-over is effective here because the words are so well crafted, based on the acclaimed Michael Chabon novel, and provide insight into characters. Tripp is reading from a story by one of his best students, James Leer (Maguire), who Tripp describes as being the “sole inhabitant of his own gloomy gulag,” emphasizing the young man’s outsider existence, and the unhappiness that seems to be reflected in his work. His comment also pertains to the feeling of failure that plagues serious writers who are never satisfied with their own compositions. There is a lot of rain and cold weather in the movie, suggesting the inclement life of Tripp and his fellow travelers during the course of the story. The professor says he was distracted since his wife left him that morning, but “Wives had left me before,” he says, indicating his past problems with relationships.
Hannah Green (Katie Holmes) is a talented writer, “insightful, kind” and always wears red cowboy boots, so there is an element of attraction here in Tripp’s observation, as we learn that he has been involved with younger, beautiful women. She rents a room in the professor’s house. The other students are nasty in their criticisms of James’s work, probably envious that they can’t write as well as he does. Hannah comments that James has the courage to “forget us,” that is, not worry about how his work does not cater to the audience. Tripp reminds his students that the college’s WordFest (which sounds like a literary Renaissance fair) is to occur that weekend. The professor worries about James being so morose. Hannah, though young, is almost maternal, as she is concerned about Tripp’s state of mind following the breakup of his marriage.
Tripp says that he feels good being able to be alone and clear his head while driving following the workshop. But, he smokes a joint, not something one does to get unfogged. He uses drugs the way he uses his writing, as an escape from the pressures of reality. There is also a bit of self-destructiveness added to the recipe of what makes someone a writer, since he is driving under the influence, and death is the ultimate escape.
Terry Crabtree (Robert Downey, Jr.), Tripp’s editor, flies in for WordFest, and was influential in getting Tripp’s last novel, Arsonist’s Daughter, published. The work was a critical success and brought both of them praise. That was seven years prior, and Tripp has not followed up with another completed book. The lack of recent successes finds both Tripp and his editor suffering from damage to their current reputations. Crabtree is there to check out the status of Tripp’s next novel. Crabtree, who we learn is gay, signaling him out as an outsider at the time the movie was released, arrives with another social outcast, a transvestite, calling themselves Antonia Sloviak (Michael Cavadias). Tripp makes it sound as if he has almost completed his new book, but his evasiveness about its progress undermines his reassurances.
The start of the WordFest weekend begins at Sara and Walter Gaskell’s house. He (Richard Thomas) is the English Department Chairperson, Tripp’s boss, and she (Frances McDormand) is the college Chancellor who also happens to be Tripp’s lover. Walter’s dog is named Poe, befitting an English Department head. Poe always growls, appropriately like a creature from a gothic tale, at Tripp, probably sensing he is a threat to the married couple’s domestic bliss. The dog is blind so just smelling Tripp keeps him barking in the vicinity of the professor’s scent. Sara (McDormand) and Tripp go upstairs and she immediately informs him that she is pregnant. Sara provides a “simple” solution to their situation: since Trip’s wife has left and the two of them are involved, they should get divorced, marry, and raise the baby. He repeats the word “simple” with less than enthusiasm, showing how for him making a decision to commit to Sara is complicated.
Walter does not know about his wife’s infidelity or pregnancy. His Harvard education has not provided him with more insight than his visionless dog, who Tripp says knew about him and Sara “from day one.” Walter is obsessed with baseball great Joe DiMaggio and his wife, Marilyn Monroe, and collects memorabilia concerning them. Walter says that every woman wants to be Marilyn Monroe, and Antonia, the transvestite, agrees, but she is also a he, so some men might want to be Monroe, too. This movie presents various sexual lifestyles undermining Walter's rigid theories of masculinity, represented by the bat swinging DiMaggio, and femininity, in the person of sex symbol, Monroe.
Tripp sees Q (Rip Torn), a writer who is rich and famous, and completes a novel every eighteen months. For those reasons, Tripp dislikes him, as many struggling writers probably despise James Patterson, who cranks them out quicker than that, with help, of course. Q (revealing his arrogance by allowing himself to take sole possession of a letter of the alphabet and assuming everyone will know it pertains to him) is talking with Hannah. Tripp shows his envy by trying to undermine their conversation to make a materialistic derogatory crack about Q’s expensive house in the Hamptons. He also lets Q know that Hannah had two stories published in the prestigious Paris Review literary magazine, implying she is probably a better writer than he is. Another professor compliments Tripp by saying he has placed Arsonist’s Daughter on his syllabus for three years. But, as Tripp walks away, he hears the professor’s female companion comment how it’s been a long time since that novel came out. The scene suggests that even if a writer produces a great piece of work, the public just wants more, and if it’s not forthcoming, the author is labeled a has-been. This attitude is the reader’s and critic’s version of “what have you done for me lately?”
Tripp goes outside to continue his escapism with his pot smoking. James is standing on the lawn with a small handgun. He immediately makes up an elaborate story about how it isn’t real, and was acquired by his mother at a penny arcade in Baltimore during the time she was in Catholic school. Tripp says, “that’s convincing,” sort of sarcastically acknowledging the quality of the fiction. James says the pistol is like a lucky rabbit’s foot. Tripp highlights James’s oddness by pointing out the strange preference for a gun instead of a rabbit’s foot. James says Hannah invited him to the Gaskell’s place, but says he isn’t supposed to be there, the statement sort of summing up his life. He and Hannah like old films and saw one with Frances Farmer and Gene Tierney, both of whom, Tripp and James note, eventually went insane, apparently pointing out how artistic types aren’t “normal” and prone to mental illness. Tripp shows his affinity with James’s peculiar ways by agreeing with him that the movie sounds like a good one. James then says that Tripp isn’t like his other teachers, and Tripp comments that James is not like his other students. So they recognize how they are, in their own ways, not swimming in society’s mainstream. Tripp apologizes that he didn’t cut off the criticism of James’s story in the writing workshop sooner. James notes that the students hated the latest story more than the others, meaning he has been getting continuous rejection because he isn’t following accepted norms. He says it doesn’t matter, because it only took him an hour to create the story. Tripp is astonished at the quality of the writing produced in so short a time, acknowledging James’s talent. He asks James if he’s cold and wants to go inside. James says it’s colder there, and Tripp agrees, as they goth get no warm reception from others due to their nonconformist ways. James was attracted to the property’s greenhouse because it looked like the depiction of heaven he saw in a movie, with people living in places that were made of glass with light shining through them. A film is a work of art and James finds refuge in something imaginative that takes him away from the harshness of real life.
Tripp convinces James to stay. They go inside, and Crabtree has his “gaydar” on. He seems immediately interested in James, who he quickly perceives not to be straight. Hannah, who was involved in a conversation about films, mentions that James would probably know about actor George Sanders’s suicide. Again we have a reference to an artistic person seeking escape for not fitting into the world around him. James, an expert on old movies and misfits, knows that Sanders died from an overdose of pills, and states the exact day and place. Hannah says that James “knows all the movie suicides,” humorously anointing him as the info king of Hollywood’s tragic social dropouts. James then lists a slew of deaths, most of them by pills, with the occasional self-inflicted gunshot wound. Crabtree is intrigued, and wants James to accompany him and Tripp after leaving the party, comically calling it a “field trip” (a pun on the professor’s name) sponsored by a faculty member.
Tripp takes James secretly upstairs, opens up Walter's safe (knowing the combination - 5641 - which IMDb points out represents the number of consecutive games DiMaggio had a hit, and the year in which the record was established), and shows James the fur-collared jacket worn by Marilyn Monroe on the day of her wedding to DiMaggio. (Monroe did have such a jacket). James, like Antonia, shows a female admiration for the garment. Movie stars like Monroe, and the motion pictures they acted in, provide a fiction that offers an escape from otherwise unfulfilling lives. Monroe’s death, however, was another example of an unhappy artist’s life ending in an early tragic death. Unfortunately, James seems to have a strong connection to the destiny of these once happy actors who eventually no longer fit in among the living. Since Tripp says Walter doesn’t tell Sara how much his collected items cost and the fact that Tripp knows the lock combination, allows James to deduce that Tripp has a relationship with the Chancellor. Hannah also mentioned to James that Tripp’s wife left him that day, so James now knows that there is no happiness in these marriages. James looks dejected, and says that the Monroe jacket, without its owner, looks lonely there, and he shares that sadness derived from his traveling a solo path. Tripp admits to being lonely, too, so they have that in common, also.
For animal lovers like myself, we just have to remember that the dark comedy surrounding Poe’s fate is just pretend. The dog shows up smelling his nemesis and attacks Tripp, sinking his teeth into his leg. James, whose gun is quite real, puts the dog down. They have to do something with the canine corpse so they wrap it up and put it in Tripp’s car. Poe’s body seems to stick around with Tripp for quite a while, sort of haunting him as a reminder of his messy, unresolved situation with Sara. Tripp comically says that he would take the blame for the dog because unlike James, he has tenure. While putting Poe in the trunk, James notes how much storage there is as it holds a suitcase, garment bag, Antonia’s tuba, and a dog’s body. Tripp adds more humor by saying “That’s just what they used to say in the ads.” Tripp finds some pain medication in Crabtree’s bag to relieve his throbbing leg. He had offered James weed before and now asks if he would like some of the painkillers. James declines both times, saying how he wants to feel in control. Probably feeling judged, Tripp, sarcastically noting how the unpredictable James goes around with a loaded gun, comments, “You’re fine. Yeah, you’re just fit as a fucking fiddle.” He then apologizes, but James now defiantly takes the pill followed by a swig of booze.
The two go to the WordFest auditorium gathering where Q is the keynote speaker. Q starts out by looking penetratingly at the audience and saying in a somber voice, “I … am a writer.” Tripp looks at James, with an “are you kidding me” look referring to the pretentious pronouncement. Q goes on with an exaggerated metaphor about the writing process by saying, “What is the bridge from the water’s edge of inspiration to the far shore of accomplishment?” James, his inhibitions lessened by the consumed intoxicants, laughs out loud, interrupting the speech. It’s the kind of moment people may relish because they would like to do the same when faced with a person so full of himself.
Tripp sees Sara and that glimpse reminding him of his situation, along with the drugs, makes him feel faint. He wanders out into the hallway, swoons, and then passes out. He comes to on the floor with Sara above him as she reveals that he has “had another one,” of his episodes, his subconscious way of not dealing with his problems. He is ready to tell her about Poe, but she assumes that instead he will say that he still loves his wife, who is young and beautiful, and will stick with her. He doesn’t give her the right answer when he reminds her that his wife left him, so it’s not up to Tripp about how to fix his marriage. What she wants to hear is that he loves Sara. She then starts to smoke a cigarette and says she won’t have the baby. He takes the cigarette out of her mouth, an act of caring paternity. She asks what else can she do? Since he seems to agree that he doesn’t know what can be done, she becomes angry, because he can solve the problem by being with her. She discovers the gun that Tripp took, and he then becomes part of James’s fiction, saying that it is a cap gun, “a souvenir from Baltimore.” She is grounded enough in reality to not be fooled by the story.
Crabtree helps carry out the doped-up James, who converts his disappointing real life into a story, talking in the third person, saying, “It was so embarrassing. They had to carry him out.” Tripp asks Crabtree how James is doing, and Crabtree provides another of the film’s many great lines, saying, “He’s fine. He’s narrating,” which reflects James’s comfort zone. Antonia, who hoped to hook up with Crabtree, is disappointed as he now is focusing on James. Tripp gives “Tony,” which is what they are calling themselves now, having to accommodate the locals with an acceptable male identity, a ride back home. (IMDb notes that “Tony” may be a reference to the cross-dressing character played by Tony Curtis in the film Some Like it Hot, which also starred Marilyn Monroe). Tony tells Tripp that Crabtree is worried about getting fired due to not having any successes in years, and is pinning his hopes on Tripp’s work-in-progress book. Tony says Crabtree said that Tripp wasn’t “one of those writers who has a success and then freezes up and never has another.” Tripp looks into the rearview mirror as Tony talks, and his reflection shows that he worries that he may be one of those failures. He says that he may have to rescue James, but Tony astutely says Tripp may need some rescuing himself, which may be necessary because of the trap he has put himself in.
Tripp goes to the bar where he asked James to visit with him and Crabtree. His editor is there with James. Q is dancing with Hannah, and Tripp is probably a little jealous. James appears to be asleep sitting up in a booth. The editor, noting James’s condition, observes that Tripp made a raid on the “Crabtree pharmacopoeia,” the invented word implying he must have a lot of drugs in his stash. James admitted to Crabtree that he has a book, which Tripp knew about, but he didn’t know, as Crabtree informs him, that James finished it already. Crabtree asks if James is a good writer, and Tripp says not yet, as he tries to keep the editor, who is hungry for a comeback, from pouncing literally, and figuratively on James. Crabtree is sure the young man is gay, and does not agree with Tripp’s view that investigating James’s “sexual confusion,” as Tripp puts it, will add to his problems. Crabtree believes the youth needs to find clarity.
A pregnant waitress with the unusual name of Oola (Jane Adams) serves them their drinks. Things that are different intrigue these outsider types. They see a fellow that looks a bit like James Brown, with a pompadour hairstyle. Tripp and Crabtree play a game they have enjoyed in the past by improvising stories about those they observe, which is what fiction writers do, using real life as an inspiration to entertain and maybe comment on the human condition (which is what Q was trying to say, only badly). They give the guy the amusing name of Vernon Hardapple (Richard Knox), and he happens to be Oola’s love interest. Throughout the movie they keep calling him Vernon, unable to disconnect themselves from the fantasy world they have created. They make up a whole backstory about the man, but get stuck, and the supposedly unconscious James rescues them by adding to the scenario, talking about Vernon’s involvement with a gangster called Freddy Nostrils (a great name, just the right amount of exaggeration of what a mobster might be nicknamed).
Hannah dances with Tripp and says she is re-reading his famous novel, and talks about how beautiful it is. She says he wrote something about her in her copy of the book, and seems to be coming onto him by saying that she isn’t as innocent as he thinks she is. He is torn, being attracted to her but saying the world needs those who haven’t been corrupted by others, including, supposedly, himself. Tripp tells Hannah to take James home, but since the young man makes up everything, she has no idea where he lives. He tells her to take him to Tripp’s place to sleep it off. Tripp offers Q and Crabtree a lift, making sure they don’t see the deceased dog in the trunk. “Vernon” appears and says that Tripp stole his car. He makes a scene, with Crabtree humorously saying to Tripp, “Do you owe him a book, too?” There is a comic driving sequence with Tripp going the wrong way on a one-way street (an image stressing Tripp’s nonconformity), and ending with Vernon registering his complaint by leaving his butt impression on the car’s hood by jumping on it. He then exits with a theatrical bow (another nod to artistic expression). Q speaks for all of us when he says, “What the hell was that?”
James, although in and out of consciousness, pleads for his backpack. It was left at the college hall where WordFest took place. The janitor, Sam Traxler (Alan Tudyk, who you will recognize if you are a fan of Joss Whedon’s work) lets him in, and says he knows he’s there for the backpack because there is a manuscript in it, which Traxler probably believes belongs to Tripp. It is actually James’s novel, entitled The Love Parade. The impatient Crabtree drove off with Q, and Traxler gives Tripp a ride. There is also a biography of Errol Flynn in the backpack (another movie reference), and, assuming Tripp is reading it, Traxler asks if the story is true that the actor put paprika on his penis to make sex more stimulating for women. Everyone apparently loves an exotic story in which to escape, and Tripp, a spinner of tales, has fun going along with the story, saying how Flynn “used to rub all sorts of things on it. Salad dressing, ground lamb.”
As they pass by Sara in her greenhouse, the one that looks like heaven to James, an unearthly sanctuary far removed from life on earth, Tripp says in a voice-over that he loved that Sara was addicted to the printed word, and he manufactured “her drug of choice.” This line is witty, but also fits in with the film’s theme of how those who feel the need to get away from everyday existence seek it through various means. Tripp arrives at his house and discovers that James stuffed the Marilyn Monroe jacket in his backpack. He probably wanted to hold onto his idea of a happy fantasy represented by the movie star, and thought he was rescuing it from what he labeled its loneliness in the closet. He projected his own state of mind onto the jacket, and its removal may even symbolize his own need to get out of the “closet” as a gay man.
Tripp wakes up the next morning and finds his car has returned. Crabtree is in bed with James. He says in the voice-over that he had to put everything aside and work on his book, probably feeling guilty after encountering the prolific Q and learning that James finished his work. He says that it started out as a small novel but ballooned to the point that he is now on page 2611. He says that the ending kept “getting further away.” He says that he knew the ending was out there and he “could see it,” but he then starts to feel a fainting spell coming on. It’s as if he doesn’t want to finish the book, because he is afraid it will be a failure once it is given to others. The inability to complete his work is symbolic of how he can’t cope with the problems in his life, and when he tries to deal with either the ending of his story or his relationship issues, he passes out as one of his forms of escape.
He wakes up looking at James who says he put him on the floor. Tripp is wearing what looks like a woman’s robe, so James says he must really miss Emily, his wife. He says the clothing does not belong to her. He just likes writing in it. The clothing here reminds us of Antonia and it may be another example of the transvestite theme that shows nonconformity. But, these instances of wanting to dress up as someone else also furthers the story’s theme about the desire to enter another make-believe world. James, always seeking a tale, says “there’s probably a story behind that.” Tripp says there is, “but it’s not very interesting,” which is a way of saying he doesn’t want to talk about it. James sees Tripp’s mammoth manuscript and Tripp confirms that it is single-spaced, making it an oversized load of a book. Since it was a while since his last novel, James says some of his fellow students thought Tripp was “blocked.” Tripp says he doesn’t believe in writer’s block. James, stating the obvious, says, “No kidding.” It’s not Tripp’s writing that is blocked, it’s his life.
James gets a phone call from an anonymous man asking if Tripp lived there and wanted to know about his car. Tripp most likely realizes it was “Vernon” calling. A police car arrives and Tripp tells James to hide. The cop says that the Gaskell’s dog is missing as well as an item from the safe. Tripp pretends he doesn’t know anything about it, and evades questions about James, acting like a father wanting to protect his wayward child.
Tripp wants to visit his ex-wife and takes James with him. His leg is hurting, and then Tripp slips on the steps outside, injuring his hand. The problems of his reality are taking hold of him, like the way Poe clamped down on his leg. While at the store to buy some band aids, Tripp asks where James lives. Typically, James creates another story. He says he was kicked out of his apartment. Tripp, echoing James, says there must be a story there, and James repeats Tripp’s earlier evasion by saying, “There is, but it’s not very interesting.” He hesitates as he adds to his fiction, saying he now stays at the bus station, where he knows the janitor who allows him to put his stuff in a broken locker. He’s been there for a couple of weeks and had the gun for protection. His words have a similar feel to the improvisation about Freddy Nostrils. In a voice-over, Tripp reveals that he knows James is making it all up, saying his “story was the stuff of bad fiction.” But, Tripp is too preoccupied to seek out “where the page ended with him and real life began,” which is what the film seeks to explore about all of its characters (who are totally fictional, because, you know, it’s a movie).
On a detour to visit Sara, James, the former sober individual, no longer wanting a life anchored by control, smokes Tripp’s marijuana that he keeps in his glove compartment. Tripp buys a pathetic peace offering in the form of a “Thinking of You” inscribed balloon for Sara. He says to her that he needs to talk with her, but again can’t deal with the reality of the relationship. He says he wants to be with her, but that doesn’t mean he plans on doing so. She tells him it’s not enough to want them to be together, which only has the intangible substance of a desire. She also says she hasn’t made up her mind about having the baby, or about him. She is forcing him to find his own way here since his commitment is required given the importance of the situation. He must find his own way, driven by what he wants, and says she isn’t going to draw him a map, because “Times like these, you have to do your own navigating.” She notices James in Tripp’s car, and asks what he’s doing with Tripp. He says he, who can’t seem to resolve his own problems, is helping James work through some issues. Sara drives the irony home by saying of James, “Isn’t he lucky.”
Back in the car, James weaves another tale, although Tripp doesn’t realize it at the time. James says his dad, who lives in Carvel, Pennsylvania, outside of Scranton, needs pot for his colon cancer. He says the town is a “hellhole,” consisting of “three hotels and a mannequin factory,” where his dad worked at for thirty-five years, and where he met his mother, who was a fry cook who became an exotic dancer. The strangeness of this story illustrates how much James enjoys soaring with his flights of fancy. Tripp reminds James that he said his mother went to Catholic school, to which he comically recovers with, “When we fall, we fall hard.”
Tripp had said that “the moment didn’t present itself,” so Tripp hadn’t told Sara about the jacket and the dog. Now, as James smokes a joint, Tripp reminds James that he said he didn’t want to get high because he wanted control over his emotions. James repeats Tripp’s words for his own purposes again, and will in the future, by saying his use of intoxicants just needed “the moment to present itself.”
They wind up at Emily’s house, and Tripp says he thinks he’s there to end things with his wife on the right note, but he’s not sure, because he is afraid of how life’s stories will turn out (as opposed to fictional ones). James explores the home’s alcohol opportunities as well as sweets to satisfy his sugar-driven pot high. He tunes on the TV and watches a part of an old movie (it’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is appropriate since that story deals with art and the ugliness of life, and stars George Sanders, one of the actors James mentioned committed suicide, a sort of escape artist one might say). Sanders’s character says we should “give form to every feeling, reality to every dream.” This speech about self-fulfillment preaches giving substance to hopes, not residing in a pretend world of just possibilities, as some of the main characters here seem to want to do. James changes the channel, enjoying, appropriately, the unreality of Judy Garland singing in a musical. Mickey Rooney in the movie says something about how it must be terrible to be a “has-been,” and this line resonates with Tripp’s fearful feelings about his writing career and how failure may cause him to crash-land, grounding him so he can’t fly above the debris of his life.
In Emily’s bedroom, even though he says that Emily’s house feels good, like a place to wake up to on Christmas, Tripp admits to himself that he didn’t really know his child-bride. It’s only when he woke up and left this make-believe dream existence to be with Sara, a more mature woman representing true life, did he feel at home. He calls Sara, but when he admits to being at Emily’s house, she misunderstands the purpose of the call, and tells him she can’t wait for him trying to figure out if he wants to reconcile with Emily. Emily’s parents arrive at the house, and the father (Philip Bosco), after helping to take care of Tripp’s leg, tells him that Emily didn’t feel like he was there for her, which is pretty obvious since he doesn’t seem to have been there for anyone, until James’s needs “presented” themselves.
In the car, James muses about how the students hate him, and Tripp tells him it’s because he is a vastly superior writer than any of them. But, he also says that it doesn’t matter what others say about his writing because, in Tripp’s dejected state, he says that writing doesn’t mean anything anymore. But, James says that Tripp’s novel meant something to him. It was why he came to study with Tripp, and why he wanted to be a writer himself. Given the shambles of his life, Tripp says for that, “you have my eternal apologies.”
When they stop at a diner, Tripp asks a telephone operator about Carvel, Pennsylvania. But, there is no listing for it, and when Tripp says he’s not just making this up as he goes along, he realizes that is what James is doing. He eventually is able to contact James’s parents who show up, dressed well, and say that it was okay, the party they were going to was on the way. They don’t act parental since they seem not to understand when Tripp says James would probably like to be with his family. Back in the diner, James wants to stay with Tripp. He says that the couple are his grandparents who have taken care of him since his parents died, and they keep him in the basement. Tripp then, appropriately, adds melodramatic Edgar Allan Poe touches to James’s story, embellishing James’s narrative. James says they treat him like a freak. Tripp says that is what he is, and “welcome to the club,” because they both are, asking James to acknowledge his outsider citizenship. James says that his parents don’t know who he is, but Tripp says he doesn’t either, since he hasn’t said anything truthful to him. James says that he just wanted to spend time with Tripp, who coldly seems to have had enough of his student, and says, “I’m a teacher. I’m not a Holiday Inn.”
Unfortunately, (or maybe on purpose?) James left his backpack with Tripp. Parked, Tripp reads James’s manuscript. He returns home but while he was gone there has been a student party at his house with Crabtree in attendance. Hannah found Tripp’s book, and started to read it. Tripp tells Crabtree that he read James’s book and says it’s very good because, “it’s true.” Even though the artist may want to remove himself or herself from life, if the work speaks honestly to the reader, it reaches the level of human truth. Tripp admits that he called James’s parents not for what was best for the young man but for himself, to get rid of him. Hannah finds James’s address in the phone book, and Crabtree wants he and Tripp to go and liberate James.
On the way, Tripp, starting to confront reality, gets Crabtree to face the truth that his job is at risk, and the editor reveals that his bosses act like he doesn’t even work there anymore. At James’s house, they hear a typewriter and Rodgers and Hart music emanating from the finished basement, confirming James’s location. As James goes to get changed, Crabtree sees that the young man has been writing about Tripp, describing the physical pain concerning his leg. James typed, after what Tripp had told him about the futility of writing, “that his hero’s true injuries lay in a darker place.” James was writing about Tripp’s wounded creative soul not being able to truly realize itself, as James has been able to do. James went on to write Tripp’s character not only could not inspire others, it was not able to inspire itself. This sad portrait of himself adds to Tripp’s feelings of failure. To make sure that James won’t be found missing, Tripp gets the bizarre idea, worthy of a true social outsider, of placing Poe in the bed covered by blankets.
They get back to Tripp’s place, and Crabtree and James wind up in a bedroom. Tripp finally has the guts to call and confess his love for Sara to Walter. The next day, Sara shows up and says that one of their students is missing, and a dead dog was found in his bed. Tripp admits that it’s his fault. Sara asks where is the Marilyn jacket. Tripp left it in his car, which is now missing. She says that the authorities are now involved, and the “puberty police,” as Tripp call the young cop, shows up at that moment. Tripp goes upstairs to advise the two men that the cops have arrived. They are in bed with Crabtree reading James’s book. James says that Tripp looks terrible, who says everything’s fine. James throws back his own words, saying sure, Tripp’s “fit as a fuckin’ fiddle.” As James walks out of the room, Crabtree says he’s going to publish James’s book, saying with editing it could be brilliant. Tripp then makes a perfect literary allusion, saying that with the police there, James could be the next “Jean Genet. Been a long time since somebody wrote a really good book in jail.” (Genet was a gay writer who was imprisoned). In the pervasive pouring rain the police take away James, but he tells Tripp that even if he is expelled, he was the best teacher he ever had. Sara makes a joke about wondering if this is what they meant when the college promised a “liberal education.” After questioning, he admits that he called during the night and said he loved her. Sara told her husband it “didn’t sound like” Tripp, which is understandable, given his wishy-washy behavior up to this point about his dedication to Sara.
Tripp knows he has to get the jacket back, and needs to borrow Hannah’s car to do so. She tells him, after reading a lot of his book, that although containing “beautiful” language, it is too detailed. She reminds him that as a writer he says that one has to make choices, (that is, as to what to change and delete), and he hasn’t made any choices at all, and her statement points to his problem with his non-writing life, too. She suggests that he should not write so much “under the influence,” which also addresses his desire to not face life’s responsibilities.
In Hannah’s car, Tripp reads his weighty manuscript while Crabtree drives. Tripp says his car was given to him as collateral by someone who owed him money. Tripp now realizes that it really belongs to “Vernon,” and they must find him. They go to the bar where they saw “Vernon” before, and the car is there. But, the jacket is missing. In his difficulty with dealing with this new complication, Tripp has one of his “episodes” after looking at James’s gun that remained in Tripp’s car. When he comes to, there is the waitress Oola wearing the jacket. “Vernon” has a gun drawn because Tripp has one in his hand, which he accidentally discharges. Crabtree, panicking, tries to drive Hannah’s car over, lets the door fly open, and all of Tripp’s manuscript flies out.
The next scene has “Vernon” and Oola driving Crabtree and Tripp. He says the wind-blown manuscript was the only copy. Crabtree suggests that maybe it was for the best, that Tripp’s subconscious was letting go of the work that wasn’t working. When Oola asks him what the story was about, Tripp admits sadly, “I don’t know.” Vernon says if he didn’t know what it was about, why was he writing it? A good question, and Tripp’s pathetic response is that he couldn’t stop, the sort of answer an addict might give. Tripp asks whether their child is a boy or a girl, and “Vernon” says as long as it looks like Oola, “I really don’t care.” Tripp is presented with a couple about to have a child, like he and Sara, but unlike his situation, Vernon and Oola do not question their love for each other, and their desire to be together. They know their place in the world. Tripp repeats James’s words this time about Marilyn Monroe having small shoulders, just like Oola’s. He lets her keep the jacket, because her dream in life has come true (as was advocated by the character in the movie James was watching). She was not escaping into a delusion but instead she was making her wishes manifest themselves in reality.
Tripp seems to have come to a realization about the purpose of his life. He tells Crabtree that one can’t make someone a writer. A teacher, which is what he is, can only encourage someone to find his or her own voice and keep trying. He says that “it does help if you know where you wanna’ go.” Helping his students “figure that out,” along with Sara in his life, has kept him going. He tells Crabtree to improvise and try to get James off the hook.
At WordFest’s closing ceremony, Crabtree has made it known that his company will be publishing James’s novel. Tripp is there to cheer his student on, calling him a “Wonder Boy,” which reminds one of the carving on Roy Hobbs’s bat, and identifies James as a “Natural” when it comes to good writing. When James sees Tripp, who urges him to take a bow, James performs a dramatic one (reminding us of “Vernon”), and smiles. Crabtree makes a deal to prevent James from incurring disciplinary action by promising to publish Walter’s book about DiMaggio and Monroe.
Tripp goes looking for Sara. He takes the weed out of his pocket and drops it down the atrium to Traxler, liberating himself of the crutch. He starts to swoon, but we then hear him speaking, and we realize that the voice-over we have been listening to was Tripp writing the story, which is the movie we are watching. He says he lost his wife and his job, but now, like his students, he knows where he’s going and he has someone to help him along that road. Sara drives up to their place with their child. He looks all cleaned up, and types on a laptop. He is now able to save his writing, like he has saved his life.
The next film is Moneyball.
Saturday, May 11, 2019
SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
The Night of the Hunter was the only film directed by Oscar winning actor Charles Laughton. It’s too bad that the poor showing at the box office and the reviews of the critics at the time of its release in 1955 discouraged Laughton from doing more film directing. It is now considered one of the best films ever made, and is included in Roger Ebert’s The Great Movies.
The film is a scary fairy tale about children pursued by a predator, a sort of Big Bad Wolf. The character of Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum in a great performance) is the boogeyman in this story. Mitchum’s performance is all the more frightening because, except when Powell doesn’t get his way, he is not ranting and raving, but instead is charmingly seductive, which makes him even more dangerous because he can get close to his victims.
The film starts with a shot looking up at the stars. So, it’s night time, when bedtime stories are read to children, but it also is the time when sweet dreams occur, or horrifying nightmares invade our sleep. There is a lullaby which fits the time of day, with the words, “Dream, my little one, dream.” The words of the song talk of “the hunter in the night fills your childish heart with fright.” But, it goes on to say, “fear is only a dream.” Is that line just a way of trying to soften the impact of these scary stories on kids, or is it trying to urge children not to give in to fear, but instead deal with danger? The images and music set the stage for this cautionary story that puts both children and adults in jeopardy. There is the face of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), who will appear again in the last part of the movie, as she reads from the bible to children, warning them of those “Who come in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” The movie cautions against those who present themselves as being righteous but are in fact evil.
There is an aerial view looking town on a small community, which could suggest a God’s eye perspective on human activities. The innocence of children playing games is undermined by the discovery of the body of a woman. Cooper’s voice-over says, “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit. Neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Wherefore by their fruits, ye shall know them.” This biblical metaphor stresses that one can judge people, not just by what they say, but by their actions and the results of their behavior.
The next shot, again from above, appropriately zeroes in on Powell, driving an early model car, since the movie takes place during the Great Depression. He believes he is talking to the “Lord,” not about holy matters, but concerning how many he has killed in His name. He obviously was the person who murdered the woman found by the children. He says he awaits the word of the Lord to tell him who should be the next victim, and wonders if it will be another widow. He says that God allows him to get enough money to preach the Lord's word, since a widow usually has a little money stashed away to keep him going. We have here that wolf who is clothed in the words of a preacher. The film explores how religion can be perverted by a sinister, psychopathic person, convincing himself and others that he is doing God’s will, but who is really self-serving.
Powell, though believing he is God’s instrument, is so self-righteous that he feels it’s okay to complain about being tired and wondering if God realizes what He puts him through. He says that it isn’t the killing that bothers him, since the bible is full of that, thus, in his mind, justifying homicide. He understands the Lord hates “perfume-smellin’ things, lacy things, things with curly hair.” In these words, women aren’t considered humans, only objects, “things.” His real complaint with God is that there are just too many sinful women to kill. Powell’s character is a violent misogynist who wants to take the story of Eve in the Bible and use it as the justification to dole out divine punishment against women.
We then get an image of a scantily clad woman dancing on stage. Powell is in the audience, with a disgusted look on his face. He has the word “Hate” written, significantly, on the fingers of his left hand, “sinister” coming from the Latin word for “left.” He puts that hand in his pocket, and then the blade of a knife rips through the fabric of his coat. The image is a phallic one, a symbol of a violent erection, psychologically revealing male arousal coupled with guilt for having that response, and the urge to destroy what brought about the sinful excitement.
A policeman arrests Powell because the car he is driving is stolen. A judge sentences him to thirty days in the penitentiary. He is a man espousing God’s laws while breaking secular ones, rationalizing his actions by placing himself above human rules of behavior. (Abraham Lincoln’s picture hangs on the wall behind the judge, suggesting a non-religious figure that should be admired in contrast). Powell tells the judge that he is a preacher, but the judge is not going along with the hypocrisy, calling him a thief, and questioning why a man of God attended a show featuring a stripper.
Again, we get the shot from above, as if we are seeing what God sees, as the camera focuses on the prison where Powell is incarcerated, and then the view switches to a residential community. On the ground, two children play, and their father, Ben Harper (Peter Graves), arrives in his car. He is bleeding and carries a gun and ten thousand dollars, which he obviously stole. A police siren is heard in the background. He tells his son, John (Billy Chapin) that he has to take care of his sister, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) whose name suggests that a child is the real treasure, not money. Ben tells them to swear not to tell anyone, not even their mother, where the money will be hidden. So, Powell is just one version of the wrongdoing in the world, since here is a father corrupting his own children with his criminality. He is perverting the oath to tell the truth by asking them to promise to lie. The troopers arrive, knock the father down and handcuff him. In a scene similar to the one with Powell, Ben is now the man in front of the judge. This similarity equates the two men as father figures. Since Ben killed two men during the robbery, the judge sentences him to be hanged.
Ben winds up in the same cell as Powell. Because Ben reveals some information in his sleep about the money, Powell tries to get Ben to say where the cash is hidden while he is dreaming. Powell is like Freddy Krueger, a demon figure invading one’s dreams. Ben wakes up and hits Powell for trying to make him talk. Powell points out that Ben quoted scripture, saying a “child shall lead them.” We again have this ironic placement of the religious in the context of a criminal situation. In a sort of unholy confession to the phony preacher, Powell, Ben says he committed the crime because he was “tired of seein’ children roamin’ the woodlands without food, Children roamin’ the highways in this here Depression, Children sleepin’ in old abandoned car bodies in junk heaps. And I promised myself that I’d never see the day when my young-uns had want.” Although Ben breaking the law and killing others must be condemned, he places his actions in a broader context of how desperate economic situations can create circumstances that can produce deadly behavior. Powell says he could use the stolen money to build a place of worship better than that of another preacher. Powell’s plan for the money springs from envious competition instead of any care for the suffering of others, which is what religion is supposed to stand for. Ben is cynical about all that Powell says.
Powell reveals that on the fingers of his right hand is the word “Love,” showing, along with his other hand, the duality in the world at large. (Spike Lee borrowed the hand image for his film, Do the Right Thing, and displayed the words on his own hands at the 2019 Oscar ceremony). Powell prays to God, seeing the placement of Ben in his cell as an act of providence, leading him as the Lord’s disciple to the ten grand, and providing him with another future widow, Ben’s wife, to take advantage of.
Bart, the guard who participated in Ben’s execution, goes home to his wife and two children, just like the man he just killed, showing that there is a shared connection between those that commit crimes and those that carry out the punishment. This observation suggests that, depending on the circumstances, events could be reversed for the two men. Bart wonders whether he should quit his job at the prison, probably finding it too stressful to carry out his duties. He considers that maybe he should return to his job working in the mines. His wife says it would only have made her a young widow if he had stayed there. The conversation shows how the trying financial times have placed a heavy burden on people, forcing them to make choices among punishing alternatives. Bart tucks in his two children as they sleep, hopefully having innocent dreams in a world of nightmarish reality.
The move to the next scene is a good transition since we go from the man who was involved in a hanging to where there are children in a playground who are singing about what a hangman does. One boy draws stick figures involved in a hanging as Ben’s children hear and watch. Even young Pearl starts to sing the song, which her older brother John tells her to stop doing, since he is embarrassed to know it has to do with their father. The words of poet William Butler Yeats come to mind about “The ceremony of innocence is drowned,” as we see how corruption penetrates the lives of children.
Willa (Shelley Winters), Ben’s widow, works at the ice cream parlor (a symbol of American small town wholesomeness) owned by the appropriately named Icey Spoon (Evelyn Varden), and her husband. Icey tells Willa that it’s God’s will that a woman should have a husband to raise children. (This takes place during the 1930’s, remember). Willa says she doesn’t want to get married, probably since her first husband turned out to be a thief and a killer. We then get cuts to a train at night with bass-infused ominous music in the background, suggesting, despite Icey’s reference to God’s plans, that Willa’s future spouse may be one sent from hell, not heaven.
Pearl asks John to tell her a bedtime story, which continues the dream/fairy-tale theme. Her brother is an imaginative child who starts a tale that mirrors his father’s story, about a rich king who was taken away by bad men. He told his son to keep secret where his gold was hidden in case the bad men came back for it. As he talks about these “bad” men, on cue, there is the dark shadow of a man’s profile pictured against the window shade behind John. The looming image frightens Pearl. Outside Powell’s scary figure stands just outside the supposed safety of the home enclosed by a deceptively reassuring picket fence. He sings a hymn with the words, “Leaning, leaning. Safe and secure from all alarms. Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.” Again, we have the weird mixture of religious hope with the threat of danger behind it.
John enjoys looking at a steamboat passing by on the town’s river edge, which suggests an escape to a better life. But, as he tells his friend, Uncle Birdie (James Gleason), an older man living in a shack near the river, John’s freedom has been restricted, having been tasked with watching over Pearl. The man says he needs to “sweeten” his coffee, putting whiskey in it, while flattening down a picture of his departed wife who tried to keep him away from alcohol, saying as an old man he needs some fuel in the morning to keep his “boilers” working. His words imply that decadence increases with the decay brought on by aging, emphasizing the fragility of earthly life. Here it is the woman who tries to thwart, not engage in, temptation. He informs John that there is a man in town who knew Ben in prison.
That man is, of course, Powell, who John finds at the ice cream parlor talking about Ben. He has already tried to weasel his way into their lives with Pearl sitting on the counter in front of him. Powell says he has come to comfort Ben’s family. Icey is a gullible religious person who has already allowed Powell to win her over as she praises him for going out of his way to cheer a “grievin’ widow.” He lies, presenting a false picture of himself as a caring man who worked at the penitentiary as a preacher, offering religious hope to the inmates. He acts like a sensitive soul since he says he had to leave his position because the place was too “heart rendin.’”
Powell then tells the story of love and hate, “good and evil,” since John stares at his fingers. Powell says that it was with the left hand that Cain killed his brother, Abel. He interlaces the fingers of both hands and says life is a battle between the two forces, as his two hands wrestle with each other. He shows “love” winning, but we know from his past that his contempt for women has won over his mind, and he actually represents the forces of “hate.” He presents a benevolent Dr. Jekyll surface that covers a violent Mr. Hyde lurking below. Powell holds Pearl in his lap, looking paternal. Willa, although appearing sad, wants John to show some appreciation concerning Powell’s stated intentions. But John has been growing up quickly because of what happened to his dad, and has a scowl on his face. Powell says that Ben told him that his children were like two little lambs, the reference implying innocence. But, are these lambs being led to the slaughter? Icey says she wants Powell to come to the town picnic.
Powell does attend, and he sings with the others there about “Bringing in the Sheaves,” although his harvesting plans are more diabolical. Willa also sings, but her eyes are downcast, and she looks like she is just going through the motions in her dejected state. Icey wants to play matchmaker, saying Powell is ripe to settle down. Willa counters by saying that John doesn’t care for him, and she, being rightfully concerned, wonders if Powell could be there to get at the missing money that Ben stole. The film is pretty cynical about relationships between men and women. Icey says, “A husband’s one piece of store goods you never know ‘til you get it home and take the paper off,” suggesting the unpredictability of what kind of man a woman may end up marrying. She, therefore, concedes the inability to prevent an unhappy union. She presents the jaded perspective of the adult world, saying that in her married life, she cared more about her “canning” than her husband. She basically believes that all that emphasis on love sustaining a marriage is just talk, and it really is just a practical arrangement. To her, she says that romance is a “fake” and a “pipe dream.” For Icey, “a woman’s a fool to marry” for sexual gratification. She believes physical pleasure is “for a man. The Good Lord never meant for a decent woman to want that.” Her old-fashioned views equating sin with sex, even within a marriage, if taken to an extreme, as Powell does, can be perverted into justifying violent punishment toward females who seek physical gratification.
Willa and Powell talk alone, and she asks him if he knows what Ben did with the money. Powell says that on the night before his death, Ben told Powell that he wrapped the money around a cobblestone rock and sent it to the bottom of the river. Willa feels liberated, thinking that Powell is not there to get any money. She says she feels “clean” because with the money out of the picture, it can no longer taint her life. But, John smiles, because he knows that what Powell said is not what happened to the cash, and, thus, this stranger can’t get at it. But, Powell is just being deceptive again, lying about what Ben told him, to set the family up by putting them at ease so he can eventually discover where the cash is hidden.
Coming back at night from Uncle Birdie’s, the part of the day that points to the title as the time of the hunter, John is eerily surprised by the predatory Powell who tells the boy that his mom and he are going to get married. John says that he isn’t his father and never will be. He then makes a child’s mistake because he is not used to dealing with deception, and says that Powell is just trying to get John to tell him where the money is hidden. Now Powell knows that John was told by his dad where he hid the cash. John immediately realizes he said too much and covers his mouth. Powell, with a sly smile, asks if he is keeping secrets. Then he ominously says not to worry because they have a long time together for him to find out what John knows. The younger, more innocent Pearl, more vulnerable to lies, says she loves Powell and wants to tell him about the robbery, but John tries to persuade her not to say anything.
Willa gets ready for the wedding night and finds Powell’s knife in his coat pocket. He earlier told Ben the weapon was a type of holy sword, but it really represents a perversion of the male sex drive. When Willa comes to bed, Powell lectures Willa about how marriage should not be about disgusting “pawing,” (which sounds animal-like) but instead is the joining of “two spirits.” He commands that Willa look at herself in the mirror. He says that her body was meant by God for procreation, not satisfying the lust of men (forget about the fact that women might want to experience pleasure. That would be unthinkable to a man like Powell). Since she confesses that she wants no more children, the marriage should be sexless according to her new husband. Powell’s distorted view toward women is shrouded in religious pretensions to purity, and Willa, accepting how men have blamed women for making them fail God’s test of temptation, feels depraved as she prays to become “clean” to comply with Powell’s version of a wife.
Uncle Birdie takes John fishing, and apologizes for cursing in front of the boy, given the supposed preacher status of his stepdad. But John, almost in rebellion against the fatherly usurper, doesn’t seem to mind. Birdie promises John that he will be there for the boy if needed, as if Birdie expects there will be trouble from Powell. He catches a fish, curses it because it has been a threat to fishermen because it steals bait, and he kills it. The scene seems to imply that Powell is analogous to the nasty fish that takes from others out of selfishness.
At an evangelical event that Powell hosts, Willa says she was a sinner for causing Ben to rob and kill so she could have perfume, clothes, and cosmetics. Powell preaches an interpretation of Genesis that absolves men of responsibility for doing any wrongs, and instead puts the blame on women for using their seductive ways. causing men to sin.
Pearl is in the backyard of the house and has retrieved the stolen money. But, being an innocent child who doesn’t realize the crimes people will commit to acquire wealth, only sees it as something to play with, and cuts a couple of the bills into paper dolls that represent her and John. Her brother finds her with the cash and hurries to hide it as Powell comes to get them inside. The camera stays low as we see a couple of escaped bills blown under the back porch as if the greed for wealth contaminates the home. Powell confronts John with his usual deceptive good-natured manner which tries to hide his sinister intents. He says he knows that John told his mother that Powell asked him about the money. But, he says that it doesn’t matter, because she believes Powell over her son when he told her John was mistaken. John is open-mouthed in surprise that Willa took the word of Powell over her own boy. This realization furthers John on his coming-of-age journey that tries to destroy his hope for happiness.
Willa, under Powell’s religious charismatic spell, thinks that her son is just being impudent and stubborn about not accepting Powell as his stepfather. John continues to tell her that Powell asks about the money, but she accepted Powell’s story about it being at the bottom of the river because that is the story she wants to believe, relieving her of any ties to Ben’s crimes. Willa tells Icey that she is happy to take on the burden of trying to reconcile Powell and John, probably seeing it as a form of penance to rid herself of her sins.
Powell continues to pressure the resistant John about the money. He then feels he can persuade Pearl, who is too young to perceive Powell’s evil ways, to get her to tell him where the cash is. He plays a game of revealing secrets, as he perverts the childhood way of having fun. Powell takes on the role he condemns, that of Eve, as he tempts others to do wrong. Before she says anything, John hits Powell with a hairbrush. Powell starts to take Pearl out of the bedroom, but she picks up the doll in which the siblings stashed the cash. The stolen money, acquired in a bloody theft, representing adult depravity, hidden in the toy of a guileless child, is another symbol of contrasts, like the words on Powell’s fingers, pointing to warring moral forces.
Willa, outside before entering the house, hears Powell trying to turn Pearl against her own brother, telling her he is a bad person. He asks about the money, and when she hesitates, he calls her a “a little wretch” and threatens to tear her arm off. Pearl screams and runs away from him. There is a cut to Icey and her husband, Walter (Don Beddoe), who says there is something off about Powell, and is worried about Willa. It seems that the men, the judge, Ben, John, Birdie and Walter are able to see through Powell’s fake, pleasant, holy exterior, maybe because they see something of the frailty of themselves in him. The women he killed, and now Icey, Willa, and Pearl are seduced by his charms, possibly showing how society has made women vulnerable so as to require them to depend on men.
Later, in bed, Willa has finished her prayers, and tells Powell that she now knows that Ben didn’t tell Powell the money was at the bottom of the river. Powell then savagely smacks Willa across the face for having questioned him. But she takes the attack in stride. Instead of being outraged about his lies and abusiveness, she sees the money still being around as “tainting” their lives, it, not Powell, being the problem. She says she realizes that he knew about the money, but she has drunk the Kool Aid, and believes that God sent Powell to her not just so he could get the money but to help her save her soul. Powell exploits the biblical blame placed on women and makes females want to atone for the horrible crime that Eve perpetuated, causing humans to be expelled from paradise. The shot of their bedroom has a peaked ceiling, looking like a church interior, but there is nothing holy about what is happening. Powell, realizing that he can’t afford to have Willa know about his plans to get the stolen money, takes out his knife, and kills her, as he probably planned to do as soon as he found the money, and as he did with the other widows he cast his spell on. Like Norman Bates in Psycho, Powell’s pathology allows him to penetrate a woman only violently, with a blade.
John wakes up in the middle of the night and hears a car starting up, but goes back to sleep with the money-doll between him and Pearl, an image of adult corruption violating their childhood. Powell shows up at the ice cream parlor acting sad because he says that Willa took the Ford Model T and left him and the children. He has staged his deception, painting women again as sinners, to divert others away from his own evil. He quotes scripture as he bemoans the deceptive ways of women taken over by Satan. Suspicious Walter asks if he had a feeling about something being wrong with Willa. Powell says on their honeymoon night Willa, (not him), turned away from her husband, refusing intimate relations. The hoodwinked female, Icey, probably believes there must be something seriously wrong with Willa for refusing such a righteous hunk as Powell. Walter, at least questioning what happened, wants to know if Willa left a note. Powell says she did, but he burned it since it reeked of hell, as he continues to weld religious justifications onto all of his actions. Powell says he sees it as his responsibility to now take care of the children. When Walter suggests that Willa might return, Powell’s chilling response is that he can guarantee that she won’t. He has succeeded in infiltrating the family, and now can get the information out of the children about the money with no adult to prevent him.
There is a shot of Willa in her car, with her throat cut, at the bottom of the river (taking the place of the money in Powell’s story), her hair mixing sadly with the seaweed. But, above Birdie is fishing, the hook at the end of his line getting close to the car that represents literally and figuratively how Powell has submerged his crime. Birdie looks into the water and can see Willa in the car, and is horrified.
We hear Powell again singing “Leaning, leaning,” as Birdie looks at the body, followed by the words, “Safe and secure,” which state how God is supposed to be protecting his flock, coming, ironically, from a man who does just the opposite. Powell is leaning against a tree outside the house, like that wolf in sheep’s clothing, calmly ready to pounce on its prey. John has Pearl hiding with him in the coal cellar. Powell says he can hear them whispering down there, and says almost playfully, that he can feel himself getting mad. Everything about him is geared toward drawing others in by presenting a deceptively pleasant surface, but it comes with an escalating threat of danger when he starts to not get his way, and culminates into violence when thwarted. Icey shows up and unwittingly delays his plans. He says that the two children are just playing and won’t obey him. Because of her lack of insight, she aids this devil, and gets the two children to come upstairs before leaving.
There is a quick scene with Birdie, getting drunk, talking to the picture of his deceased wife, saying he saw the slit in Willa’s throat, looking like a second mouth. But, he knows that the supposedly upstanding preacher Powell knows how to play the game of persuading others by blinding them with his pious presentation. Birdie, although intoxicated, still realizes that Powell can spin the facts and make it look as if Birdie is the one who killed Willa.
Back at the house, Powell has a table full of food, and is again the tempter, trying to get Birdie to reveal the secret of where the money is. When she says John says not to tell, his pleasant manner gives way to yelling and pounding the table. He calls John a “meddler” and flashes his knife, saying he uses it to deal with “meddlers.” She reaches for the blade and Powell says he becomes very angry if anyone tries to touch his weapon, (his penis-substitute knife), almost as if he feels to do so is to violate him sexually. This whole scene is effectively disturbing, as Powell says that John doesn’t matter, and Powell is abusive toward Pearl, calling her a “disgusting little wretch.” Typical of an abusive male, he then follows that derogatory comment with how sorry he is, but still blames the young female for making him mad.
John says that he’ll tell him where the money is since he doesn’t want Powell bothering Pearl. He says that the cash is in the cellar under a rock. He is hoping Powell will go down there and they can escape. But Powell makes them go down the cellar with him. There is no stone floor, only concrete, and Pearl, almost echoing Powell, showing the bad preacher’s effect on her, says that John is a sinner for telling a lie. Crazy Powell says the Lord is talking to him now, and he grabs John and pushes his head down onto a barrel of apples (suggesting the apple in Eden?), and, in a reversal of the truth, says the Lord is calling John an “abomination.” He pulls his knife out and threatens to cut the boy’s throat. To save her brother, Pearl reveals that the money is in the doll. Powell laughs and says it’s the last place one would look, or at least him, because even though he fools others by appearing harmless, he can be fooled by what appears to be innocent because he sees evil everywhere.
John snuffs out the candle, and makes a shelf of preserves fall down, hitting Powell on the head, and causing him to slip on a jar. As the two children try to escape up the stairs, Powell climbs the stairs after them, his hands outstretched, making him look like Frankenstein’s monster. John slams the cellar door on Powell’s hand, and the man even growls like a predatory animal. He calls the children the “spawn of the devil,” demonstrating to such an extreme he has inverted what is right and wrong. The children go to Birdie for help, but he is passed out drunk. The children flee to the river and get on a boat as Powell, who has broken out of the locked cellar, pursues them. He is slowed down in the mud (mired in his own evil?) which prevents him from reaching their boat in time. He then screams like the maniac that he truly is.
The children’s ride seems surrealistic, almost dream-like, fitting a fairy-tale story. It is night, and the music mimics the twinkling of the stars, which we saw at the beginning of the film as it foreshadowed the later appearance of Cooper who warned about false prophets. Unlike the other women, she is aware of what a satanic force Powell is, and she represents the “love” written on Powell’s fingers. Pearl sings in a sweet voice, but her song in contrast deals with loss, as the words tell of a fly whose wife flew away, and that the children of the female fly also flew away. The lyrics reflect the loss in her own family. The boat drifts by a tree and the shot is filmed through a spider web, implying that the boy and girl are similar to the flies that may fly away to freedom but also may be caught in Powell’s lethal web.
A week has passed and Powell lies again, saying in a note that Walter reads that he took the children away for a while. Powell is riding a horse (a “pale” one, like some biblical apocalyptic figure) as he hunts John and Pearl. The throes of the Great Depression are depicted as hitting everyone, as John and Pearl are among the hungry children that Ben spoke of who wander the countryside begging for some food. They get potatoes from a sad looking woman who barely has enough to spare. The failure of society to care for its young thrusts the boys and girls out of their innocent world into a threatening one.
Powell gets a job picking fruit, and ironically lectures the other male workers about how the forces of evil are winning, he actually being one of their dark soldiers. They, like the other males in the tale, seem bored and uninterested, taking no comfort in Powell’s words. In the meantime, John and Pearl continue on their Huckleberry Finn type journey down the river, as we see several animals, including a frog, turtle, and some rabbits on the shoreline. They appear enlarged, being in the foreground, and look like giants in contrast to the children in the boat, suggesting the dangerous voyage of John and Pearl. They stop at a farm and John says they will sleep on land this time. The woman who lives there sings a loving lullaby as the two bed down in the barn with the cows during this brief respite from terror. But, John wakes to the warning sounds of a dog barking. He hears Powell’s ominous singing of “Leaning, leaning,” which contrasts with the comforting voice of the woman the night before. John asks doesn’t he ever sleep, which sounds as if he is asking does evil ever sleep?
They flee back to the river. As they sleep, their boat gets caught in bushes and comes to rest. They meet Mrs. Cooper, who is stern, but who has given sanctuary in her house to several young girls. She wants to wash Pearl and John, and talks about how she now has a couple more youngsters to take care of. She spanks John when he tries to run away from getting a bath, not a form of discipline we would recommend today. She probably believes it is her role to give them the parental guidance and care that they have been deprived of. That is why she calls herself a “strong tree” with room for many “birds.” When walking in town with the young children, a woman comes up to her daughter and says she is working to make things better for them. Cooper tells the mother to make sure she shows up at church service. Unlike Powell, she practices what she preaches. Cooper sounds like Icey in saying how women act foolish as they fall in love and have children. She smilingly, says, after observing a woman kissing a man, “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,” that is, another child to rescue. So, women, the film says, are immersed in and seduced by a patriarchal system which falsely promises a life of romance. Unfortunately, many of the females succumb to the fakery.
At night, Cooper takes a bible out and John, soured by Powell’s hypocrisy, goes outside. So, Cooper tells him how, like Pearl and John, Moses washed up on shore, and he turned out to be a king and savior, offering John the hope of a fulfilling life. She kindly asks John to get apples for the both of them. Here, instead of the apples being associated with a fallen Eve, they are linked in contrast to a holy woman not corrupted by temptation. John seems to warm up to the old lady, now becoming interested in the story of the pharaohs.
One of Cooper’s girls, the older Ruby, meets some boys in town, and is an example of females allowing themselves to be seduced by the attention and physical admiration of males. As one of the youths approaches Ruby, Powell intervenes, and buys the girl ice cream and tells her how pretty she is, almost like the grooming act of a pederast. He uses his compliments to get confirmation from Ruby that Cooper has Pearl and John with her, and that the doll with the money is there, too. As he walks away after getting what he needs, like a satisfied man leaving a woman after being sexually gratified, Ruby still wants more compliments about how pretty she is. Powell then has a mean look, with his left hand in his pocket, and the sound of the knife is heard as it clicks open, again suggesting his violent reaction to purge his guilt about being involved in a form of sexual encounter. But, he can’t hurt the girl in public, and leaves.
Ruby, realizing she has been “bad,” confesses (which takes on its religious connotation in this story) that she was in town, “out with men,” and that last word is delivered sounding as if males are the source of all corruption. Cooper is forgiving, saying how we all look for love, only Ruby looked for it “in the only foolish way you knew how,” with selfish men. Cooper says she lost the love of her son, but found it again with the children in her care. Cooper seems to be more of an embodiment of the New Testament’s call for forgiveness and love, and Powell appears like a deranged, vengeful religious emissary. Ruby tells of meeting Powell, and the suspicious Cooper wonders why he asked about the children.
Powell shows up at the Cooper farm and Ruby identifies him as the man from town. He calls the children “lambs” and “chicks” which seems affectionate, but in reality reveals how he sees them as a hunter’s prey. He tries to win Cooper over, as he did other women, with his religious spiel, talking about the words on his fingers. But, she brushes off his pitch with probing questions about where is the mother, and why didn't she take the children, and how the two came up the river in a boat. He says that his wife is “down river,” which, given that she is under the water, comes off as a dark joke. Powell says that the two children are his “own flesh and blood,” and that lie is exposed when John shows up looking upset and says that Powell is not his father. Cooper discerns Powell’s false religious facade and says, “and he ain’t no preacher, neither.” Powell then drops his fake pleasant face and replaces it with his true hateful one. John grabs the doll that sits at the foot of the steps and climbs under the porch. Powell starts to go after him with his knife exposed. But Cooper, sort of visually mocking the man for bringing a knife to a gunfight, points a shotgun at Powell and tells him to leave. Powell, calling the females “whores of Babylon,” resorting to his demonizing of women, says he will return at night, which is an appropriate time for his dark, nightmarish character. Although it is not too bright revealing when he will show up again, Powell thinks he has the almighty on his side, so he’s probably feeling secure in that belief.
And Powell shows up at night as he said he would, singing the “Leaning” song again that is supposed to be a religious comfort but becomes more and more menacing each time he sings it. Cooper, however, is on guard duty, looking like an armed “Whistler’s Mother,” as Roger Ebert pointed out, sitting with her rifle in a rocker. She is a frail woman compared to the muscular Powell, so we sort of have a David and Goliath contest, with true faith making her the stronger of the two. Cooper then sings along too, not giving Powell domination over the religious words, as they verbally duel over who has the right to represent the righteous way. Cooper looks at an owl moving its head, observing its victim, a rabbit, before it swoops down for the attack, mirroring the actions of the hunter, Powell. Cooper says, “It’s a hard world for little things,” and then there is a shot of the children, who, like the rabbit, are at risk in this dangerous environment.
Cooper, marching back and forth in the house next to the children like a sentry, tells the youngsters about how Herod tried to prevent Jesus from growing up, and asks how did Mary and Joseph deal with that danger. John says they ran away, and that is what Cooper tells them to do as Powell is seen only as a shadow, resembling a supernatural spirit, and only his threatening voice can be heard. He says he wants the children. When he appears out of the darkness, Cooper shoots, apparently wounding Powell, who runs and jumps while screaming out of the house toward the barn like an inhuman banshee. Cooper calls the police and tells them she has someone in her barn. The police come and arrest Powell for Willa’s murder. As they push Powell to the ground and handcuff him, John runs with the doll and yells, “No!” several times. The image reminds John of how his father, Ben, was arrested, and stresses how life has ripped his parents away from him. John hits Powell with the doll as the money flies out, as the boy says he doesn’t want the cash. For him, after all that he has been through, it truly is the root of all evil.
In the courtroom, the people call Powell “Bluebeard,” because of all of the widows he killed, and they want him executed. On the witness stand, only the prosecutor’s finger is seen pointing at Powell, which brings to mind that Satan is called the “accuser” who tries to undermine the beliefs of others with his accusations. John will not look at or identify Powell, being Christ-like in his mercy. Cooper takes him and the other children out to dinner, but Icey comes along with a mob yelling about how the children were Powell’s victims. However, they did not see Powell for what he was and take no responsibility for welcoming him into their town. The people turn into a lynch mob, and even in their righteous indignation, they still show an ugly side to people, and Cooper tries to remove the children from that aspect of the townspeople. These scenes take place at Christmas, which adds an irony to the mob’s actions. As the police take Powell out of the jail to protect him from the citizens, they see the executioner, Bart, who felt depressed about his job, but now says it will be a “privilege” to carry out his work on Powell. Merry Christmas, indeed.
The last scene of the movie has Cooper with her youngsters exchanging Christmas gifts. Cooper gives John a new watch, maybe suggesting that she is giving him time to be a child again. John gives Cooper an apple, which is what she gave him earlier. John is the only male at Cooper’s place, suggesting that maybe men, despite their wicked ways, can be saved. Again, the apple here is not the one of temptation that condemns women and whose biblical significance was used by Powell to unleash his vengeance against females. Instead, it is depicted here as a symbol of caring and nourishment, both physical and spiritual that springs from love.
After a week off, the next film is Wonder Boys.