Saturday, 27 October 2012

[Review] Beasts of the Southern Wild - Magic or Trickery?

Faced with both her hot-tempered father's fading health and melting ice-caps that flood her ramshackle bayou community and unleash ancient aurochs, six-year-old Hushpuppy must learn the ways of courage and love.

As someone who is fairly up to speed with the cinematic world, it can prove an almost impossible task to approach a film completely subjectively. Especially when it is lauded with the amount of critical appraisal and pre-award season hype that Beasts of the Southern Wild has befallen on. Being the cynic I am, I was suspicious of the buzz. A landmark debut, coming-of-age, modern fairy-tale celebrating a naturalist existence in the bayou. That description alone is enough to get most critics gushing. And indeed the bayou does hold a distinct magic that has given birth to some of America's most beloved classics. However it was only when I caught a glimpse of the trailer that the warning lights set off like Blackpool pleasure beach. It looks like a Nikon advert, I remarked to those who had too been intrigued by the hype, and that is essentially what Beasts is. A manufactured snap shot of freedom. Bathtub is director Benh Zeitlin's smug attempt at creating his utopia, but it is merely the idea that he is in love with.

In the opening sequence our protagonist Hushpuppy, played by Quvenzhané Wallis, creeps around her garden listening to the heartbeat of the animals, 'Everything's heart is beatin' and squirtin and talkin' to things in ways I can't understand.' I groaned. It's the kind of narration one would here from a Terrence Malick parody. But Zeitlin plays it with a straight face; including a number of sequences were Hushpuppy talks to her long-gone mother. You see, where Malick's hushed verse acts with restraint, coming from a deep seated existentialism, Zeitlin indulges in it frequently to underscore the film with a 'feel the world' tone. I call it bullshit.

Wallis is a pin-up for the film's message and every scene is bookended by shots of her staring stonily into the distance, less an expression the ferocity she meets each of her problems with, and more an excuse for the poorly structured narrative. Her performance is one of texture, she is surrounded by mud, rust and earth and she inhabits the role well, acting and reacting to the ever changing environment around her. However the tendency to spit her dialogue at the audience tends to undo that. Regardless, she's positively masterful compared to her father played by Dwight Henry who chews up the scenery and almost descends into racial stereotyping as opposed to acute naturalism I imagine Zeitlin thought he was writing. This is only enhanced by film's claustrophobic and 'natural' cinematography, which is, frankly terrible. Director of photography Ben Richardson has a lot to answer for here as even the simplest of conversations and actions become a nauseating, infuriating mess.

It is a shame, because the thing I liked most was its setting, which despite Zeitlin's best efforts, remains endlessly fascinating. That says more about the landscape's natural wonder as opposed to the set design, which is so heavily cluttered, literally including the kitchen sink on more than one occasion. Still I will admit to marvelling at the flooded Bathtub or twilight river brothel that channels late Kieslowski. But these are merely aesthetics, the clunky social commentary and celebration of earthly life that are tied to them do nothing for me. Remember the astonishing river sequence from Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter; a sequence hung in the balance between unnatural stillness and a hopeful calm. It was a scene, that through its twilight induced imagery embodied the film's prayer for the safety of children through a tough and unforgiving world. Yeah, the equivalent moment here is Hushpuppy's remark 'It wasn't no time to sit around crying like a bunch of pussies.'

At a mere 93 minutes long, Beasts is not given enough room to develop its characters or world, the drama and set pieces feeling rather inconsequential. Much of the interaction between Hushpuppy and her father are heavy-handed attempts to illustrate their growth and development, rather than letting them develop through their actions. The town of Bathtub is essentially a testament to Zeitlin's limitation. It is the eco-friendly life of self-expressive naturalism that can only come from someone raised on the outside looking in. Zeitlin himself was born and raised in Queens, New York city but relocated to New Orleans in 2008 to shoot his short film Glory at Sea. Bathtub is his heaven, but his observations of such a life are so unintuitive that we cannot sympathize with the actions of its inhabitants. Celebrate self-reliance, sure, but when that self-reliance turns to stubborn arrogance and eventually to straight up suicide, it leaves you wondering, why spend the whole time celebrating such an existence if you're not going to survive to experience it? The film's final metaphor comes in the form of the Aurochs, an ancient beast woken from slumber by the melting ice caps. More than a simple carbon-foot-commentary, they are an embodiment of all that threatens to offset Hushpuppy's survival, and she will have to meet it with force. A convincing metaphor it would be, if the monster looked somewhat convincing. As it is, it looks like someone stuck cardboard horns on a boar.  

Beasts of the Southern Wild is the type of film that is prone to a critical backlash, but I'm sure that won't weather Hushpuppy's spirits much, I imagine she'd care little for any analysis or deconstruction of her world in any way. But Zeitlin is not as immune as his six year old heroine, and it is only a matter of time till he and his earthy creation are found wanting. Critics and audiences have bought into the world of Bathtub, but soon they will realise that it is just a festival of light and moonshine, shying away from the truth and hardship of life on America's most idyllic highway.


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