Beasts of the Southern wild is wonderfully strange and ambitious.
It’s odd then to write about the film’s influences. It can even look like avoiding a difficult film. Yet, watching it, I couldn’t shake the sense that this movie was consciously setting itself in relation with two of contemporary cinema’s most idiosyncratic and philosophical filmmakers: Terrence Malick and Werner Herzog. What’s more, the film’s final act seemed to offer an alternative vision of the world. So in a clumsy way, here is what I’m thinking about (still) in response to this movie.
First Malick, the more overt influence. In Beasts as in Days of Heaven, a young girl with a nearly incomprehensible accent narrates in voice-over a tale of adult relationships. Her voice is naive but philosophical. By narrating a story that is beyond her, she makes the relationships less familiar, more visible, and she comes of age. Stylistically, Malick’s influence is strong: the subjective camera that parallels the child’s point-of-view while maintaining one of its own; the lyricism of the imagery; the interest in natural landscapes; all of these are emblematic of Malick’s recent films. The allegorical side-story of the prehistoric animals and the numerous handheld, shallow-focus close-ups could have come directly The Tree of Life. However, Beasts is very different from Malick’s films in that it is less abstract, less sure that things will work out, less certain that God (of some sort) is in his heaven and all is well.
Second Herzog, a set of references that are more specific and less overt. In fact, I’ve wondered if they are there at all. But the more I think about them, the more I’m convinced that the final scenes of Aguirre: The Wrath of God are the proper context for thinking about the muddy, boat-centered lives of the people of the Bathtub. The only thing missing is monkeys. If you aren’t sure what I’m referring to (or know and think I’ve lost it) watch this clip and this one.
I take the visual references to be plain. So the question becomes how Beasts‘ ideas about human life in a savage environment compare to those of Herzog’s. It seems to me that Beasts flips the moral and ethical terms of Herzog’s film on its head. Aguirre is mad, powerhungry and, despite all evidence to the contrary, confident of his superiority to the natural world. His death reveals his folly. In Beasts, the people on the boat are humble, generous and aim to live happily within the natural world. Their lives reveal an odd wisdom. The modern Aguirres (and they have become legion) live behind the levee, a concrete wall that pins nature in and drowns it. If Aguirre speaks to the danger of reaching impossibly high, Beast tells of the danger of sitting quietly in the world (but outside the system).
In the final act, I think the film leaves these sources behind and offers a very different and very old vision of the human condition. Here the concrete, unabstracted poor (who we see so little in contemporary film) live in a different world. Their lives are confusing because they are not presented as failed immitations of our own lives or as interestingly different lives that enrich our experience. They live lives that respond to, reject and denounce the sterile and, yes, lifeless choices we make every day. They are kings of their own kingdom, live their own lives. And life is a holiday. In short, they are carnival figures celebrating the return of physical life, nature, eating, drinking, sex, community, all the things we pretend we can buy at a market but can’t. This vision is neither as complacent as Malick’s nor as bleak as Herzog’s, but it is no less philosophical and no less challenging. What it shares with these other films, however–and this is troubling, really troubling–is an oddly medieval anti-modernism.
As I left the cinema, these were the pieces of thoughts I had floating around in my head. They don’t cohere much more now than they did then. But they interest me and hint at what makes this move one of the most exciting and smartest American movie I’ve seen in quite awhile.