* * * * 1/2
Dir. Benh Zeitlin
I was going to open this review with a quote from Joseph Campbell, but since I’m in the process of moving all of my books are in boxes, so I’ll have to just use this sentence as something of a place holder. The idea here is that it is important to identify what this film is not. A reading of this film as a naturalistic portrait of a regional lifestyle would be extremely troubling, and has caused some backlash form viewers who have difficulties with either the film’s lack of or perceived politics.
However, this film is a myth, and one of the truest myths in the truest senses of the word put to film. Like all important myths it combines humanity at a moment of crisis, merging the quotidian and naturalistic details with the cosmic and eternal. It feels true, it feels deeply human, while looking at the subjective and the fantastic. This isn’t magical realism, nor is it archetypal.
Beasts combines a harsh naturalism (the ecosystem of the Bathtub using ecosystem defined holistically): that everything, everyone is basically “meat.” The early parts of the film have Hushpuppy (the film’s young protagonist, through whom we view the events and world of the film) demonstrate to us how every creature has a heartbeat, a need for food, and defecates. But this naturalism, exemplified by a harsh environment, naturally and domestic, has a counterpart in a more cosmic realm. Because we all have the same needs everything is connected: there is a universal balance. And this film, through the fantastic and unreliable narration of Hushpuppy, illustrates an attempt to reconcile a world in imbalance.
In some ways, this may be the first proto-apocalyptic film I’ve seen. Perhaps the simplest point of reference would be McCarthy’s “The Road.” Like that novel (and underrated film) in this film Hushpuppy is fascinated by, and the film illustrates beautifully a dread of extinction or apocalypse, specifically an environmental one. However, because everything is environment, it takes on a specific cosmological importance. Hushpuppy’s dread isn’t so much that the ice caps will melt and destroy her world. Rather, that the environmental imbalance is itself connected to (not just an external manifestation) of her own family’s lack of reconciliation. By attempting to reconcile her own existence, her own family together, she is reconciling all of creation.
The film is unwieldy at times, but excess is hallmark of many myths. And in some ways this excess, while at times it may allow the film to lose a bit of its focus, adds certain aspects that combine to make the film a greater whole.
The excess may also be the result of the deeply collaborative nature of this film (which features mostly amateur actors who demonstrate real world experience). I’ve often wondered if there is a way that a film exists most honestly in its creation; that if the classical ideal to hide the making of the film doesn’t allow the viewers to see the entirety of the act of the film. In this film, through its excesses, there are glimpses into its making and conception. In the end, this is an exhilarating film and a profoundly moving experience.