Year Released: 2012
Directed by: Benh Zeitlin
Starring: Quvenzhané Wallis, Dwight Henry
(PG-13, 92 min.)
"Rousseau's 'noble savage' nonsense all over again, but with crawdads and zydeco." Dana Stevens
This celebration of dysfunction, poverty, violence and drunkenness is bad enough. But the cult of cloying critics who eat it all up in the spirit of “anthropological voyeurism” is too much.
William Faulkner meets Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Beasts of the Southern Wild, the tale of Hush Puppy (Quvenzhané Wallis), a spunky six-year-old, who lives in the outskirts of New Orleans on the wrong side of the levee with Wink (Dwight Henry), her alternately crazy, violent, and protective father. They and an assortment of other free spirits live in this wetland affectionately called the Bathtub, where they revel in their self-imposed isolation from civilization, feeding off the fat of the land with boatloads of shimmering crayfish there for the asking, catfish abundant enough to be caught by hand, as well as a motley flock of goats and chickens living more like domestic pets until it's their turn to supply somebody’s supper.
This is their way of life, the local teacher, Miss Bathsheeba (Gina Montana) explains quite unapologetically to her little charges. “Everything that lives is meat. I’m meat, Y’all’s asses is meat. We’s all part of the buffet of the universe.”
Naturally, she also has ominous warning about melting ice caps and glaciers, somehow mentioning the aurochs, prehistoric beasts now frozen under the ice that may or may not be freed by what Al Gore once referred to as An Inconvenient Truth.
These pronouncements are not lost on little Hush Puppy when the ominous rumblings of a great tempest approach a life that is already quite stormy. The least of these present storms is a hardscrabble existence in her own private hovel where she sautés cat food over an improvised grill she actually lights with a blowtorch.
Since Daddy, who lives in his own adjacent metal shack, has been gone for several days, Hush Puppy talks to the mother she has never known. It seems she ushered Hush Puppy into this swamp world and then shortly ran off from it herself. When Daddy returns several days later wearing a hospital gown and ID bracelet, we begin to realize the second adult in her life may be about to desert her as well, albeit involuntarily.
Much of the film focuses on the upcoming Katrina like storm and the Bathtub residents who defy all warnings to stay it out. Unfortunately, their decision is not so much born of independence, but seems more likely the result of the besotted irrational reasoning that has landed them in this wreck of a place to begin with. With a wary Hush Puppy at his side, Wink drinks himself to sleep in his improvised boat made from the bed of a pickup be truck. His protest of the storm is to tramp out into the middle of it and fire his gun into the sky.
Other bathtub residents ride it out in their own alcohol-fueled squall, waking up the next day where they passed out on the floor in drunken stupors the night before. A final surreal touch is the post storm scene on a floating brothel, where Hush Puppy and her friends feast on fried alligator and dance in motherly embrace with salt-of-the-earth ladies of the evening.
Despite its poetic pretensions and overtones, Beasts of the Southern Wild has a lot in common with the condescending local color the History channel now spews out on a regular basis in such efforts as Reality TV inspired Swamp People, American Pickers, and Pawn Stars. Just like going to a freak show, we love to stare at nature’s macabre anomalies and be reassured of our relative normalcy.
The self same critics who gush over Beasts are just more educated and self-righteous carnie goers buying their tickets to see the Bearded Lady.
But you might enjoy a few other opinions. Some critics get caught up in the hype; others not so much. Put me in the latter category.
And what glory it is. It fills the screen with visual poetry that plays like intimate documentary. The sheer primal force of its imagery is intoxicating yet never precious. The film is great art at its most artless.
Zeitlin shows his characters' beleaguered, hopeful lives with uncommon respect. His film discovers a strange beauty in squalor and an admirable tenacity in holdouts who refuse to be airlifted to safety on the mainland… In the end, Hushpuppy and her fellow villagers carry makeshift banners as they march, determined and apprehensive, into the future. It's a moment of stirring catharsis. Unless I miss my guess, a lot of viewers will want to join the parade. Colin Covert
Do you ever see a movie that you know everyone loves, see it for yourself, and then wonder what all the fuss was about? That's pretty much exactly how Beasts of the Southern Wild is. Chris Sawin
With its mannered verbal rhetoric and production design of studied eccentricity, Beasts of the Southern Wild plays into the cult of authenticity that plagues so many admiring but patronizing portraits of rural America. As an example of aestheticized poverty and marginal characters destined to be described as “colorful,” it’s more in love with its own idealized imagery and hazy mysticism than probing the more gnarly political and social realities that lie beneath.
When she devours a crab as her fellow Bathtub dwellers chant “Beast it!” the tableau comes uncomfortably close to a noble savage stereotype that’s as hackneyed as it is offensive. Ann Hornaday
Zeitlin's adoring gaze on the Bathtubbers' chaotic-yet-joyous way of life smacks of anthropological voyeurism: Rousseau's "noble savage" nonsense all over again, but with crawdads and zydeco. Dana Stevens
In the Bathtub, that muddy stretch of swampland on the wrong side of New Orleans’ levee, the crawdads live in all their glory, squirming and grotesquely beautiful in their own way. Kind of like ugly manna from heaven. Boiled, they become a thing of wonder, as you will note when you prepare them in this wonderful Etouffe.
Notice that Rhonda, who submitted this delicious recipe, suggests serving it with hushpuppies on the side. Quite appropriate, I would say.
An authentic Louisiana recipe with a rich and spicy fresh tomato based roux with fresh garlic, bell peppers, celery and onions mixed with crawfish and shrimp. A little time consuming but well worth it!! Serve over steamed rice with hushpuppies and/or crackers on the side
Cajun Crawfish and Shrimp Etouffe
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 small green bell pepper, diced
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 stalks celery, diced
2 fresh tomatoes, chopped
2 tablespoons Louisiana-style hot sauce
1/3 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper (optional)
2 tablespoons seafood seasoning
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 cup fish stock
1 pound crawfish tails
1 pound medium shrimp - peeled and deveined
Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat. Gradually stir in flour, and stir constantly until the mixture turns 'peanut butter' brown or darker, at least 15 or 20 minutes. I use a large fork with the flat side to the bottom of the pan in a side to side motion. This is your base sauce or 'Roux'. It is very important to stir this constantly. If by chance the roux burns, discard and start over.
Once the roux is browned, add the onions, garlic, celery and bell pepper to the skillet, and sauté for about 5 minutes to soften. Stir in the chopped tomatoes and fish stock, and season with the seafood seasoning. Reduce heat to low, and simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Season the sauce with hot pepper sauce and cayenne pepper (if using), and add the crawfish and shrimp. Cook for about 10 minutes, or until the shrimp are opaque.