By Jacob Mertens.
Sown from the fabric of tragedy, Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild ravages through the primeval swamp of the Louisianan bayou with a camera that shakes and slips out of focus. The characters construct shanties from scraps of metal and forgotten rubbish, while their old homes sink into rising waters. They feast on shrimp and catfish and crab with reckless glee, before the precious life of the bayou starts to die around them. For those who abide in the mythopoeic land known simply as “the bathtub,” stubborn life blooms in a nearly uninhabitable domain and snuffs out just as quickly. It would be an understandable mistake to label Zeitlin’s film as a fairy tale, since the audience views these vulnerable lives through the curious eyes of a child. However, the maturity of the gaze surpasses age and the scant fantastical elements do not feel remotely literal. Instead, Beasts of the Southern Wild slowly constructs a rude and inelegant poem, filled with despair and surprising beauty.
The film centers on Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a six-year old girl living with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) who suffers from an unspecified blood disease causing black veins to curl out from his heart. Feeling the strain of his body destroying itself, Wink first pushes his daughter away for fear of his inability to care for her. He goes through fits in which he ignores her, he places her in her own ramshackle home only yards from his and literally rings a bell for dinner. He allows the girl to wander through the swamp on her own and construct her own life free of him, but as a storm approaches to unravel Hushpuppy’s world their relationship changes. Wink searches for the girl, committed to the two of them remaining at the bathtub, refusing to be pushed away by an irksome squall. Together they help to protect a tenuous community that lies beyond the influence of a civilization that would take the beauty of the untamed bayou for granted.
As the storm rages outside their home, their patched roof spilling rain water, Wink straps floaters around the arms of his child and tells her that if the house fills with water she can rise to the top and can crawl out the roof. When the girl cannot sleep, Wink jumps into the storm with a bottle of liquor and a shotgun, firing rounds in the air to scare off the tempest. This act of defiance serves as a catalyst for the rest of the film, as Wink resolves to pass on his fierce will to his daughter. As they float through the flooded lands after the storm, Wink begins to treat Hushpuppy not just as a boy but as a man. He shows her how to catch catfish in the river, how to punch the fish dead to end its suffering. He forces her to rip open a crab’s shell rather than letting her use a knife. He seeks for his daughter to become strong, so she can live on in the bathtub after he dies. He tells her she will be king.
Meanwhile, the weight of the tragic aftermath of Katrina and New Orleans cannot be easily removed from the film’s proceedings, and thankfully Zeitlin does not attempt to do so. He allows his characters to dwell in unabashed poverty, sleeping off the storm amidst scattered trash and beer bottles, and to revel in their raucous and lawless lives. More importantly, he develops a scene in which those remaining in bathtub blow up a section of the levies outside the city (with the creative use of a dead alligator filled with dynamite and gasoline, no less). As the waters recede, haunting memories of a city buried beneath the outstretched arms of the Gulf of Mexico come rushing back. However, the film calls on Katrina in memory only. There is nothing in the film’s storm that specifically links itself to the historic event, and the walls separating water between the city and the bathtub stand more to emphasize a symbolic rift in economic and cultural disparity still present throughout much of the country.
To this point, the only images of the city ever given are a cluster of toxic chemical plants and a storm relief center that, in Hushpuppy’s own words, resembles not so much a prison as “a fish tank with no water.” Left with only these associations, everything north of the levies reduces to a possession of the corporate state. With this dichotomy in mind, Zeitlin uses the mythic land of the bathtub to allow the viewer to see an inherent distrust lingering in the wake of the Katrina tragedy, imbuing Beasts of the Southern Wild‘s characters with a pride in their perilous freedom independent from a state rule that watched the poor drown in their homes. Thus, when Wink and Hushpuppy help to destroy the wall and allow the waters to pass into the city, they assert themselves as a strengthened community and force the state to share their hardships.
It should be noted though, that while a social and political context feels inseparable from the narrative events, the film’s true power and motivation lies in its ability to harness universal concerns of death and the endurance of hardship. In the beginning of Beasts of the Southern Wild, a teacher of sorts orates on the tenuous ground Hushpuppy’s world stands on, all prepared to unravel as ice caps melt and the world’s water rises to drown the bathtub. As the film’s storm approaches, Hushpuppy is seized with violent apocalyptic daydreams of icebergs falling apart in ruin; but once the storm passes and the flood lays high, the day dreams change. Now, Hushpuppy imagines a pack of massive prehistoric boars that roam the dying land. The beasts represent a fearless strength that Hushpuppy craves amidst an environment replete with death and despair. And while the creatures feel dangerous, she talks of them with respect and awe. Finally, as her father slowly succumbs to his disease, Hushpuppy’s fantasy intrudes on the waking life of her world. She stands listening to the thunderous gait of the beasts drawing near, and as they barrel towards her she stands firm. The boars slow to a stop mere feet away from her, acknowledging her strength, and her father watches the entire scene from a resting place.
The image of the boars towering over her is nothing short of staggering, as Hushpuppy’s internalization of the fear of being orphaned takes corporeal form. As the boars turn and walk away, dissolving back into fantasy, Hushpuppy visits her father once more and watches him die. As he relents and leaves his body, it is clear the knowledge that his daughter will have the courage to go on without him has freed him. In the moments following his death, Hushpuppy strides down a concrete road spilling over with water on each side. She looks straight ahead, followed by the remaining children of the bathtub that will comprise a new, fearless generation. She has become king after all.
Ignoring the imperfections of the film, the few moments that its poetry feels forced or the fact that it only gains momentum after the storm begins, Beasts of the Southern Wild demands the designation of great art. Quvenzhané Wallis draws deserving praise for her portrayal, one of the better child performances of the last several years, and if it were not for her ability to make the film’s poetic voice over sound both grounded in the perspective of a child and mature beyond its years, the film would simply fail to work. Still, for my own part, it was Dwight Henry’s performance as Wink that drove this film. He manages to be both reprehensible and sympathetic, committing to film a reckless but oddly noble way of life. It is the life and fire Henry breathes into his character that the film honors more than anything, the fire Hushpuppy’s character inherits. In this way, Zeitlin’s film presents its audience with a eulogy, one that might read:
“Here lies the body of a beast of the southern wild, an unconquerable soul put to rest.”
Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.