Every film begins with the proposition of its universe, and with its poetics seeks to breathe spirit into inanimate flesh. Through mud, fire and blood, Beasts of the Southern Wild proffers an alchemical transgression – the birthing of a fantastical adolescent universe as a cinematic act of rebellion against the adult one.
Hushpuppy, a six-year-old Jeanne d’Arc of the bayou with orange underpants and muddy boots, proposes the salvation of her untamed community, threatened by bureaucratic legalities of those who would civilize the Bathtub, their stretch of unadulterated wildness in the Mississippi Delta. Hushpuppy, in adolescent acts of revolt, lights her cabin on fire, stomps on tables in her boots, rips crabs apart with her hands, all to reinvigorate our once-childish hearts with the savagery of childhood.
The aurochs, presented as civilization’s first images (or rather, the first images which are the seed of civilization), allegorize this proposal – a renewal of humanity through destruction of meaning. Laying waste to telephone poles and roofs and streets, these extinct beasts are to reintroduce a mythological time in which the significance of the animal still bears worth.
Half an hour into the film, the flood rains arrive, washing away the promise of wildness (and expunging the film of its animals), bringing with it the storyline and meaning floating on its surface like dead fish. This introduction of narrative (sick father, missing mother, evil authorities) submits the promise of savagery guaranteed by the film’s opening images to melodrama’s facile moral order. The pretense of the fantastical serves to veil the film’s ultimately edifying ideology behind fireworks and floods and the film forgets that it is not the retinas which respond to the wavelengths of fantasy’s beaming, but the soul.
As Hushpuppy’s concern for her ailing father grows, the maudlin music, mistrusting our intelligence, steers our emotions ever more closely towards its duplicitous objective, like bumpers in a bowling lane.
Hushpuppy, her father, and the Bathtub’s inhabitants all become moral heroes against the simplistic adversity of white folks, hospitals and fluorescent lights. The value of moral order is maintained, even though moral order is the primary weapon of convention. Aesthetically, the film adopts the position of the righteous adult, who forgetting the complexities of his own childhood, prefers to present a retroactively reinvented image of innocence, purified from the touches of cruelty and mystery present in every childish vision.
In its essence, the film’s motivation of seeking a personal and individual response to a public and political tragedy is just. Yet, the presentation of inhumanity of hospitals, humiliations of charity, oppression of the powerless leading to superficial revolt are common conceits oft-abused by the powerful to further strengthen their positions.
After her father’s death, Hushpuppy’s attempt to recreate a ritual of significance from the void of modernity seems valid, however rather than constructing a network of symbols to confer significance on this act, the film relies on a Norse mythological (and cinematic) trope of funeral pyre on the water. How different from George’s highly personalized ritual in Amour, in which the significance of his rite’s every gesture was constructed act-by-act, frame-by-frame.
Ultimately the film corrupts its own proposal. The savagery of the animal world is reduced to a visual gag of stuffing a crocodile skin with dynamite, and the desired revolt melts in cloying tears along with the arctic glaciers.
Setting itself the task of refusal, Beasts of a Southern Wild never manages to make a true act of rebellion, the only one possible in cinema – the aesthetic one. There is no no in the film. The defiance which plays across the screen remains only superficial, like the rebellion of the Marlboro Man, or the petulance of an H&M model, whose free-seeming gesture is ultimately one of submission. The films attempts to construct an alternative moral order, forgetting that true rebellion is not a constructive act, but a destructive one. A single refusal is worth a thousand yesses, and Hushpuppy’s bombastic positivism, pales faced with a Bartleby‘s humble “I would prefer not to.”
By adopting the aesthetic conventions of mainstream melodrama, the Beasts of the Southern Wild willingly chains itself to its master’s leg, whereas its one obligation (one arising from film’s very core) was to break this convention.
Upon leaving the cinema, one is filled with the oddest impression – that the cinematic experience should have been fantastical, and one wonders why it was not so. We leave the now-illuminated hall with the memory of a dry and brittle world without magic, eeriness, or mystery. The child’s world, the one the film proffered us with outstretched hand, would have been one of inexplicable hieroglyphs. Yet we receive only its verso, delivering us an adult world of decipherment and significance, and we cannot help but feel cheated of the film’s initial promise of wonder.