September 2012

Arts & Letters

After the Flood

By Luke Davies
Benh Zeitlin’s 'Beasts of the Southern Wild'

A rapturous and stunning new film, the improbable product of a modest budget and an unstructured shooting schedule, first-time director Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild (in national release 13 September) is set in a fictional, dirt-poor bayou community known as The Bathtub, a small island on the wrong side of the levee outside New Orleans. When we open, a hurricane, and the devastation it will work, is not far off. The film portrays an entire world being washed away, but what interests Zeitlin is redemption among the ruins.

Positioning itself both literally and metaphorically in relation to Hurricane Katrina (the catastrophe and its aftermath), Beasts seems to say something grand about Western materialism as a psychic wound. At the same time it delivers a perfect miniature: an exquisite study of a little girl cut loose from her moorings and trying to make sense of the universe both inside her head and without.

A poetic phantasmagoria built with the tools of docu-verité, Beasts finally reveals itself as an extended essay on radiance and grace. Quvenzhané Wallis (six years old during shooting, eight now) plays Hushpuppy, our resident mystic, who lives in her own cluttered, run-down shack right beside her father’s cluttered, run-down shack in The Bathtub. Sometimes Wink (Dwight Henry) disappears for days at a time, leaving Hushpuppy to fend for herself. She’s at home in this rough Eden – “Daddy always sayin’ that up in the dry world, they got none of what we got” – though in fact she knows no other reality. There’s no one here to tell her that cooking up tinned cat food on a faulty gas hotplate might not be a normal culinary activity for a child her age.

When he’s around, Wink looks after her, in a tough-love kind of way, but he’s harsh with her, too, and sometimes he drinks too much. Clearly he’s something of a child himself. When Hushpuppy inadvertently burns her shack down and has to move in with Wink, he tapes a dividing line across the room, explaining how rigorously he expects the division to be adhered to. “If I want to come over there and smack you in the face,” he says, “that’s against the rules. So that’s a plus for you.” She stares suspiciously back at him from her new half-kingdom.

Wallis is simply a marvel and, never mind that it’s by a six-year-old, this is one of the most luminous lead performances I’ve seen in some time. Her Hushpuppy is all id, a kind of primitive animist, perceiving her universe as a tangle of interconnecting elements, everything in its necessary place. But Zeitlin entrusts her with the voice-over, so that she’s not just a bundle of pure will in motion, but rather becomes, as in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven or The Tree of Life, the verbal vehicle of the film’s super-ego, navigating her way, through her words and thoughts, into every new circumstance that presents itself.

There are many of these. Her father is ill, perhaps dying. (Hence his absences: he returns once with a plastic hospital tag around his wrist, still wearing a hospital gown. “Why you wearin’ that dress?” she asks him.) Hushpuppy’s anxieties about imminent doom seem to be increasing. “I’m recording my story for the scientists in the future,” she says, as her shack goes up in flames. She hallucinates prehistoric beasts – the aurochs – rising from millennia of glacial slumber and coming to … what? To hurt her? It’s the boldest device in Beasts, and it may not have worked, but it’s somehow coherent with the absolute primacy by which Hushpuppy’s consciousness and the film itself are inseparable. “If it’s real to Hushpuppy,” explained Zeitlin in the delightful Q&A screening I attended in Los Angeles, “it’s real to the movie.”

The hurricane comes. Hushpuppy and Wink wake to a drowned world. They get around the waters in the cut-off back half of a pick-up truck which Wink has ingeniously converted into a raft. “For the animals that didn’t have a dad to put ’em in a boat,” says Hushpuppy, in her elegiac, poetic drone, “the end of the world had already happened. They’re all down below, trying to breathe through water.” Wink tries to teach Hushpuppy skills she might need if he’s not around: catching catfish by hand, reaching deep into the water in the mudflats. He masculinises her: she must be a “man” in order to survive. He chides her for the less than aggressive way she tries to crack open a mudcrab shell. “Beast it! Beast it!” a room full of Bathtubbers chant at her, egging her on, suggesting in that odd imperative not just a way of attacking food – she cracks the crab with her bare hands and scoffs the flesh, the juice running down her chin, then flexes her tiny pecs in a bodybuilder’s pose – but life itself. “I’m the man! I’m the man!” she screams.

When the waters recede, everything starts to die, because of the salt. With their old world gone forever, the people of The Bathtub band together ever more tightly. At some point the real world remembers they exist. Helicopters hover. Government officials arrive, by boat and by land. “This is a mandatory evacuation,” say men in uniform, through bullhorns. The makeshift hospital where Wink ends up is like an alien, antiseptic planet to Hushpuppy. She sees her father, deteriorating, hooked up to machines. “When an animal gets sick here,” she says in the voice-over, “they plug it into the wall.”

As if it’s not enough that her father is dying, Hushpuppy has imaginary conversations with her momma, who “swam away”. We’re never certain of her mother’s actual fate; there’s a fantasy sequence that suggests she was, or is, a prostitute. Even Wink is guilty of mythologising the mother: when they fell in love, long before Hushpuppy was born, gas hotplates would spontaneously ignite as she walked past.

At its heart, Beasts of the Southern Wild is a child’s anxiety dream about the deluge, about loss, about the world irrevocably falling apart; the hurricane is the vehicle that makes this narratively concrete. (It’s different from The Wizard of Oz: that film feels built from the adults down, while Beasts is that rarer bird, a child-upwards view of the world.) Anxiety dreams, for all that they wrench the child from Eden, are surely the beginning of wisdom, and Zeitlin has wisely chosen to locate Hushpuppy’s ration of it in her forced early introduction to mortality; in this lies something of the film’s beautiful universality and tone of fierce, defiant joy. “Everybody loses the thing that made them,” says Hushpuppy. “It’s even how it happen in nature. But brave men stay and watch it happen. They don’t run.”

All this treads the line of corny but never crosses it. Beasts is an extraordinarily simple, elemental fable made epic through the slenderest of tricks: a ruthless economy of storytelling; an entirely heightened world built from real parts; a director who has been able to elicit powerful performances from amateur actors; an eye for the luscious by cinematographer Ben Richardson. Oh, and the choice to make Hushpuppy an ecstatic poet. “When it all goes quiet behind my eyes,” she says, “I see everything that made me, flying around in invisible pieces.”

Let that not be the last word, though. It’s not all metaphysics, much as Hushpuppy might like it to be. More than anything, Beasts is an exuberant paean to the physical. In one scene, Hushpuppy’s teacher Miss Bathsheeba (Gina Montana) is giving the class a very practical lesson about crawfish – a huge pile of live ones, and the imminent eating thereof. “Meat, meat, meat,” says Miss Bathsheeba. “Everything is made of meat. I’m meat. Y’all’s asses are meat. Everything is part of the buffet of the universe.”

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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