By Elias Savada.
First, I thought this might be another horror film with oversized critters due to 1) atomic radiation run amuck, 2) global waming (as Mr. Trump likes to call it), or 3) some crazed offspring of Minnie Mouse and Bucky the Beaver. The correct answer is 4) none of the above. Rodents of Unusual Size isn’t a SyFy network quickie at all. It’s a quirky and well-researched animal documentary about nutrias, those semiaquatic South American natives that, over the last century, invaded the swamplands of Louisiana in the tens of millions and tossed a nasty wrench in the ecological balance of the area. The film highlights the eradication efforts underway to eliminate this invasive species. As a short (68-minute) study of this animal that resembles a bulky rat, big beaver, or large muskrat, but with webbed feet, bright orange teeth, and occasional anger issues, this film, directed by Chris Metzler, Jeff Springer, and Quinn Costello, offers a unique look at these varmints. Following a lengthy year-and-a-half hitting dozens of film festivals, it just popped up on iTunes and just premiered on PBS’s Independent Lens.
After a brief introduction to Thomas Gonzales, a grizzled fisherman-hunter from the Delacroix Island community, he becomes the film’s face for the local effort to kill off the small, yet weighty (up to 30-lb) bayou inhabitants destroying the land. A quirky 3-minute animated sequence showcases the nutria introduction into American society, of their arrival from Argentina during the Big Depression in the 1930. Bred for the pelts to offset the downward turn in the economy at time, it worked. But, as the film’s narrator (native son Wendell Pierce) claims, a storm likely let them loose and they multiplied like rabbits. Fifty years later, with fur out of fashion, the nutria money machine went dry. Nutrias were left to gobble up wide swatches of swampland.
Rodents of Unusual Size sympathizes with the current population reduction efforts that allows anyone to collect five bucks per nutria tail. It’s quite an incentive if you can handle a rifle. Nutrias have destroyed the root system in the grassy marshlands, causing rampant erosion in the Louisiana wetlands, adding another nail in the environmental coffin in converting the land areas into open waters, cutting down on the coastline. It helped make Katrina even worse of a monster hurricane it already was. And that storm’s shadow still runs long so many years later. After the film’s examination of the whac-a-mole fighters, it turns lighter. To jazz, as musician Kermit Ruffins takes the stage next to a levee in the Lower 9th Ward, and spins a tale about his family home, lost to Kartrina’s wrath. Turns out he’s also a chef, and guess what he likes to cook? A nice big swamp rat for dinner, cooked in a broth of Abita beer. He tells folks it’s chicken…”We tell ’em the next day, so they don’t regurgitate.” According to culinary authorities, it’s taste is closer to rabbit. Locals still laugh when told it’s edible. I would. The mustachioed Edmond Mouton, with the Louisiana Dept, of Wildlife and Fisheries, never gets excited while on camera. He barely cracks a smile when talking about the “nutria as food” campaign: “People just couldn’t get over eating something that looked like a large rat.”
Before they began allowing the killing of nutrias, Louisiana actually promoted eating them with an “I ate it. I liked it.” promotion. Nutria sausage (Funny aside: these were offered as Kickstarter rewards, see the short here for a flavorful sampler). Nutria jerky stix, Nutria tamales. And, naturally, nutria gumbo. Maybe best to be eaten while blindfolded.
The crew also follow Michael Beran, a nutria control specialist on hire to search for nutria in the area’s vast canal system, where the animals are prone to create large burrow system. Armed with a large array of traps, he hunts down the vermin. He even gets calls to pull the creatures out of toilets, having traversed the drainage system back to those points of origin. Note to self: Always look if you heading to the loo in Louisiana.
Local fisherman, a few remaining fur traders, and other colorful local citizens parade their skills across the screen. The filmmakers seem to have found every reference to the critters as part of modern Southern Louisiana life. Pelts, pets, skinning contests (25 seconds!), edgy fashion attire, artwork, a funky tricycle, and the Fur Queen Beauty Pageant, whose winner gets a nice title and an elegant coat.
While buying a fur coat today carries a certain stigma, the effort to stock shelves with nutria items is promoted through a local company called Righteous Furs (with an adorable black-and-white, big toothed, halo-bedecked nutria logo) that suggests these furs will “Save Our Wetlands.”
The filmmakers offer a nod to Caddyshack with the nutria noshing on some golf course shrubbery in nearby Kenner, where Beran is berated by rich patrons for killing what looks like a goofy, adorable pet, “a golf course ornament.” One guy feeds them carrots and pets them, with an excuse that “they can’t defend themselves.” It’s hard to win a war when the enemy is within.
Despite the local setbacks, storm- or nutria-related, there is definitely an upbeat vibe to Rodents of Unusual Size. Nutrias have still managed, despite overstaying their long-term illegitimate welcome, to become part of the state’s culture. Human-sized ones are embraced as costumed mascots for area sports teams. Eventually, when the remaining few millions of nutrias are eradicated, I’m wondering what will replace them, and the economy they have created. That’s for another day and another movie. The war isn’t over…yet.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the new documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2019 by Centipede Press).