There’s a contradiction at the heart of any attempt to review a film as serious as this. (And, believe me, this is serious stuff.) The reviewer marshals logic and objectivity to pick apart a work of art whose very task is to confront us with fundamental issues that tax the limits of our logic and objectivity. It’s an impossible task, so I am simply going to wave my hands and let you decide whether to see the film.
Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is a six-year-old girl living on a small island (known to the locals as Bathtub) close to the Mississippi delta. Under the sporadic supervision of her sick and alcoholic father, Wink (Dwight Henry), Hushpuppy learns to survive on the cast-offs of the giant technological civilization to the north. In one sequence, Wink and Hushpuppy board their boat — an ancient pick-up truck mounted on sealed oil drums — to go fishing, a procedure that involves leaning over the tail-gate and trailing a hand in the water until a catfish comes within reach. It says a lot for Wink’s skill that the system works: the catfish, cooked on a reclaimed stove, becomes dinner.
That interlude, however, is idyllic in comparison to Bathtub’s normal way of life, an alcohol-fuelled anarchy, whose social hub is a ramshackle hut where the residents knock back jugs of — presumably home-distilled — liquor. The only sign of culture is the one-room school, run by a psychotic teacher who tells Hushpuppy about aurochs, the giant bison-like creatures — ancestors of our domesticated cattle — that roamed Europe and Asia well into the last millennium.
The islanders’ fragile society is demolished when a hurricane sweeps by, flooding Bathtub with salt water that kills the lush vegetation. To make things worse, rescue workers from the mainland arrive and forcibly transport the Bathtub residents to a sterile emergency shelter. Rejecting the food and medical care, the islanders fight their way back to their shattered homes.
And it is at this point that the film’s theme coalesces. Hushpuppy must confront the huge aurochs that lumber into her dreams. The beasts serve as two symbols: first as wild animals, they threaten to trample civilization; second as ancestors of modern cattle, they are a necessary stable foundation for agriculture — a source of civilization. But Hushpuppy must overcome her fears and tame them.
And there’s the contradiction, the knot that logic cannot untangle. Civilization is a precursor to reason; yet taming the beasts of the wild needs a vision of the way the world could be — a precursor to civilization. In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, both Kurtz and Marlow fail to confront the battle between chaos and order, Marlow by retreating to England, Kurtz by dying. The surrealist artist Max Ernst depicted the border between the adversaries: look at his “Europe after the Rain II” and “The Petrified City”.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is the first film by twenty-something director Benh Zeitlin. His direction of the amateur cast is admirable; and the cinematography of Ben Richardson is outstanding. But Zeitlin’s problem now must be finding a topic to follow one as weighty as this.