Clearly, for my money, the best film of 2012, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a ragged, reaching, visionary thing that seeks—and finds—peace and hope in what looks for all the world like irredeemable chaos and damnation. Tiny little Hushpuppy (the astonishing Quvenzhane Wallis, five going on fifty) lives with her raging alcoholic father (well, not exactly with him, which would be too dangerous for her, but near him, alone in a ramshackle trailer close by his even more ramshackle cabin) in a coastal Louisiana basin called the Bathtub that lies on the wrong side of the floodwall. There will be a storm, and that will cause a flood, and we will see exactly what that means in the Bathtub. Those are the events, but they’re not really what the movie is about.
Beasts is about finding your place in world that is brutal and beautiful and often apparently nonsensical, not just overflowing with both life and death but actually rendering them indistinguishable from each other. A dead chicken is pulled from a filthy ice chest and plopped whole onto an equally filthy grill—“FEED TIME!!”—and that’s family dinner. Boiled crabs are dumped by the bushel onto a bare, dirty wooden table and everyone digs in, cracking and tearing at them, and it would all be quite gruesome and nauseating, if it weren’t just so incredibly appetizing (maybe my Cajun blood is showing). Hushpuppy is ordered by her father not to pick apart a crab to get the meat, but to “BEAST IT!!”—rip it in half, suck out the meat and the juices, and howl like a feral animal to the cheers of the communal gathering. The people of the Bathtub live constantly perched on the brink of catastrophe and oblivion—and they drink and feast and celebrate with a ferocity unmatched anywhere else in the state—and maybe the world. Funerals there are wild binges of food and alcohol where no tears are allowed. We all know at some level that life and death are inseparably interlocked, not merely two sides of the same coin but in fact two ways of talking about the same thing. The life of the animal flows into and becomes the life of the person who consumes it; the life of the parent flows into and becomes the life of the child; the life of the individual flows into and becomes the life of the earth and those who will yet be born into it. Death is just the conduit. You can mourn it if you want, but why not celebrate it instead?
Beasts of the Southern Wild is, in fact, a passionate celebration of death. It is utterly grotesque—I would venture to say phantasmagoric, which is a word I have never written before—in the squalor and dilapidation it depicts in the world of the Bathtub. You feel and smell this place, and initially that’s not a pleasant thing. But then you come to see that the chaos isn’t quite chaos; it is actually abundance. Appliances and clothing and food and dishes and building materials and animal carcasses and overgrown vegetation.... This isn’t Death Valley, some barren landscape where life struggles to hang on. It is a place of plenty, providing more than enough to sustain everyone. But when you just can’t consume Nature’s abundance quickly enough, she has to reclaim all that life and bring it back into the primal mix. Death and decay are how she does that. It doesn’t always look pretty, but that’s our problem, not hers.
A hushpuppy is a food. But also, a puppy is something that eventually grows into a carnivorous beast itself. We learn, as little Hushpuppy learns, that our lot in life is not either to rise or to fall, to vanquish or to be vanquished, to eat or to be eaten. It is, always and forever, to do both.
© 2013 dondi demarco