Tag Archives: Southern gothic

Review: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Update early 2019:

In my original review I referred to this as cinematic rock ‘n’ roll, but Beasts of the Southern Wild is really more in the spirit of its ancestor, a bayou spiritual. Although it could be accused of wielding the filmmaker’s gaze to exoticize impoverished communities, it doesn’t fetishize its access to marginalized communities, and although it burrows right into the soul of a marginalized child with a fantastical charge, it preserves her opacity and doesn’t flaunt its access to her. Both a lament and an ecstasy, this folksy fairytale inhabits the spirit and follows in the wake of over a century of African-American folktales which both cross-examine the social tapestry, eulogize the lost dreams of the unheard, and catalyze their future aspirations.

Loyal to reality without being a simple duplication, Beasts of the Southern Wild porously flows from naturalism to fantasy without necessarily mapping the two in any Manichean fashion. Although it’s a little too preoccupied with its own inexorable fantasy at times, it’s seldom (or never) precocious, and, increasingly, it strikes me not as entombed within appropriated affectations but as inspired by an incredibly pregnant, overflowing history of marginalized populations reclaiming cultural (and pop-cultural) space denied them in manifold ways. It’s a tender but tough film, strange but not estranging, and it floods our synapses with a poetry that dredges-up submerged epistemologies from the past without forgetting how swampy its truths, and ours, are. Or how raging, tangled, and torturous the currents of the present can’t but be.

And what currents! The film is a vaporous tapestry, its restless vulgarities and energies diffusing into the ether, resulting in a film that is weighty but never weighted-down, always able to fluidly outflank any potential distrust with sheer, uncynical cinematic sublimity, shaded and even shadowed by gusts of self-awareness, premonitions of a wider world. It dazes us with its earth-ravaged beauty, somehow both transcendent and realist, exorcizing so many implacable spirits and unsettled energies, from Hurston to Baldwin to Malick, all of whom make perhaps strange bedfellows, but all both kindred in their dialectics of mysticism and materiality, spiritual and secular radiance, and Beasts of the Southern Wild summons their collective ethos and stays true to their spirits partially by disobeying them and materializing its own adjacent but not adherent attitudes.

It also shares those authors’ sometimes offhand toward the comingling of the personal and the political. Although it certainly inclines toward anarcho-syndicalism, or at least letting alternative communities be on their own terms, it doesn’t demonize the government so much as construe them as a foreign, monolithic interloper, with all the connotations that entails. It’s certainly aware that the government’s interventions into marginalized communities tend toward the palliative, at best, and the prejudicial and paternalistic, at worst. Although Beasts is mostly a parable of personal becoming, it’s also a plea to reconsider the hegemony of an empathetic but sometimes unthinking system which, the film ponders, cannot colonize all walks of life.

Original review:

Beasts of the Southern Wild feels like fightin’ words to the modern motion picture industry, a line in the sand with aesthetic-less lo-fi indies and sanded-off, corporate Oscarbait on one side, and Beasts carnivorously lurking on the other. It is above all a very instinctive motion picture, primordial and sensuous and rebellious in a way that eschews the intellectual, the analytic, and the rational for a burst of bedlam and commotion that feels, if not entirely structurally sound, all the more emotionally true for how close it comes to bursting. It’s cinematic rock ‘n’ roll. Continue reading


Stocking Stuffer Reviews: Stoker and The Paperboy

I said these stocking stuffers wouldn’t be themed, and I toyed with calling this one something like “Nasty little black hearts that happen to have Nicole Kidman in them”, but then I realized I should limit my self-serving dumbness to myself sometimes. Just sharing. 


2013 saw the “big three” South Korean maestros of pitch-black genre fare emigrate to the United States (Hollywood ever unable to beat em’, and always willing to shill out enough money so they can join em’). Kim Jee-woon went to bat first and struck out commercially (even if his grubby, sprightly little action vehicle for Ahnuld. The Last Stand, was a decent sort in it’s own way, and incomparably directed to say the least). The final hitter, delayed by one year, was Bong Joon-ho, and he knocked it out of the park with a deliriously madcap trip to film school in the rollicking kitsch-fest Snowpiercer.

In between, the bad boy of South Korean cinema went up to bat and generated a curiously slight bit of applause. Park Chan-wook was always the bleakest and most torturous of the three directors, his compatriots preferring sky-high genre fare while he always went the chilly path to the darkest places of our souls. His American debut, Stoker, follows suit, and in retrospect, the little response this film – about incest among the modern bourgeoisie – generated isn’t really a surprise. In fact, it would have been a shock had its reaction been rapturous, or anything other than the deadened, transfixed state it occupies from beginning to end.
Continue reading

Review: Mud

This Southern Gothic update of Mark Twain’s study of a child’s eye of manhood establishes a fantastically minor-key sense of place, just as 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild did slightly downriver, with the Mississippi delta, before it.  A character study and coming of age story at heart, it is bleak, submerging its layers of magical realism more subtly than did Beasts. It may be remembered mostly as a notable early role in the McConaughsaince, the amorphous terminology with which we have come to describe Matthew McConaughey’s career reinvention as a “serious” actor of superior craft, and his inscrutable work here is inspiring and wholly effective for the film. At the same time, the attention McConaughey received for the film, while not inaccurate, is somewhat misplaced. Above all, it fails to take into account how talented filmmaker Jeff Nichols uses McConaughey, which is largely as one signpost on his much larger tapestry of Southern woe. Continue reading

Film Favorites: The Night of the Hunter

Edited June 2016

One of the most perturbed and disturbing parables of childhood adversity ever found in fiction, The Night of the Hunter is primarily famous for one thing: a magnetic all-time tempter in Robert Mitchum, starring as a criminal disguised as a preacher who stalks two children, John and his younger sister Pearl. The film ultimately ruined director Charles Laughton’s budding career (he had been a respected actor for several decades, but we can’t but see his career behind the camera slipping away with every depraved, anti-realist shot). But today it wears this fact like a badge of honor.  Accolades have been lumped upon the film left and right in recent years, but the primary target is still, in regrettably narrow fashion, Mitchum’s undeniably inhuman evil. The commendations are entirely deserved but something of a shame – Mitchum, sometimes quite literally, towers over the film, but it’s a far more challenging, innovative, and spellbinding effort than one performance can muster.

Jame’s Agee’s mournful, soul-shaken script (based on a book by Davis Grubb that clearly spoke to Agee’s childhood experiences) and Laughton’s genre-crossing direction in tow, the film works not purely because of Mitchum but because its storytelling –  equal parts Southern Gothic tone poem and German Expressionist parlor trick –  conjures a surreal world for Mitchum to slither around in. The filmmaking legitimizes him, giving him a depleted, damaged energy to feed off of and human souls to take. It establishes the storybook geography that could create, and hopefully contain, him.  In 1955, it was positively radical. Today it is all the more so. Laughton’s anxious beauty looks into our soul and never comes back. Continue reading