Beasts of the Southern WildPosted by cinefile
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), directed by Benh Zeitlin
This film comes from a definable line of what I tend to call Southern gothic filmmakers, although maybe that’s wildly inaccurate. Whatever. I’m sticking with it.
The grandfather of this style is Terrence Malick, who really created this wistful, carefully paced, heavy on the metaphysical narrative style of movie with Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and most recently The Tree of Life. Perhaps the underrated The New World is most comparable to this film.
David Gordon Green took up the cause too with All the Real Girls and the modern masterpiece George Washington. And then he started directing rubbish comedies. But get me drunk some time and we can talk about that.
Beasts of the Southern Wild has that flavour, with its focus on nature, its pulsating, overloading score that crashes out of the screen and defines the imagery, its focus on both the micro lives of humans and a macro sense of the universe. It’s a little faster than a Malick film and has enough distance from his films to avoid accusations of copycat-ism but the lineage is there.
For that reason, and maybe because I’m such a big fan of Malick’s, I wasn’t blown away by the film’s style. I appreciated it, certainly, but it is by no means a revelation. There seems to be a lot of people losing their heads over this film, and while I certainly agree that it’s worthy of praise, I can’t say I had the same immediate reaction.
It’s no “game changer”, as one critic put it.
It’s a beautiful film, there is no doubt. It’s wonderfully shot, with an amazing eye for colour and space. The editing and music and action on the screen all come together with a swirling energy that captures your imagination and lifts its downtrodden story into something magical. At times it is almost literally breathtaking, both with its beauty and the chest-swelling hope it inspires. It’s almost a spiritual experience.
If it falls short anywhere, and something inside me tells me it did fall short, it’s perhaps in story. While I walked away from it with sounds, images and dialogue filling my senses, looking back on it now, a couple of days later, I have trouble finding a cohesive sense of the plot.
It’s about the New Orleans disaster. It’s about a group of people trying to live outside of modern industrial civilization. It’s about a young girl trying to make sense of a dangerous, disappointing and yet mysterious world.
All of this is strong, but I still felt like something was missing.
There’s certainly struggle, but because it’s so ethereal you really need a stark, simple, strong conflict to hold it all together. Think opera. Think the defining lines of a Rothko. I had a hard time really feeling that struggle.
One of the best sequences in the film is when they end up in a shelter, because of the stark contrast to the seemingly unreal world these characters inhabit. I didn’t really understand their plight until this scene but once they escaped the shelter I got it.
But one scene doesn’t bring the room together. I still feel that despite the assault on my senses, the wonderful, dizzying assault, something lacked in the film to bring it all together. This might be one of those lame moments that critics avoid where I have to say I don’t know what that was, but despite the experience of seeing the movie, and it was experience, something held me back from loving it entirely.
I’m fully willing to admit that this might be one of those films that I need to see again and could possibly come to fall in love with. I hope so, because of its heart, its ambition, its majesty. I want to love it. But so far, I just don’t.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is in theatres now.