Beasts of the Southern Wild and To The Wonder

* While neither of these movies are plot-driven, here be spoilers below. *

Both Beasts of the Southern Wild and To The Wonder are movies you are meant to be mildly embarrassed to love. The reason is that both of them are drenched in something like the uncoolness of fairy tales. Beasts of the Southern Wild is a visual feast that has alligators in it. Therefore it is compared to Terence Malick movies. To The Wonder is a Terence Malick movie and as such is a visual feast. In this one, at least, there is no alligator.

Fairy tales aren’t cool. We’re meant to think movies about marriages breaking up and teachers being addicted to heroin are cool cos those things are real. Priests suffering the dark night of the soul and girls making sense of the universe? What is more real than that? But it is a “visual feast”, so we are primed for sentimentality.

In Beasts of the Southern Wild, the little girl, Hushpuppy, is pursued throughout by vast mythical prehistoric creates called aurochs. Their oncoming presence casts a shadow over everything that happens to her.

Beast of the Southern Wild

In To The Wonder, a priest, Fr. Quintana, is pursued relentlessly by doubts about his vocation. The retreating presence of God casts a shadow over everything that he does.

To The Wonder

These movies are easily discarded as fripperies for the pseudo-intellectual. Maybe they are. Neither movie is without fault. But watching them together is illuminating.

As I have said, both are kinds of fairytales so they are kind of uncool. Both of them share a picture of Creation as a Cosmos. Hushpuppy believes that everything is connected. The characters in To The Wonder are striving to make any sort of a connection – with themselves, with each other, with God. But the Cosmos-view of the two movies is subtly, if significantly different. Both perceive some kind of integral, holistic sense to the universe. Neither movie leaves us under the impression that matter is all there is and matter is all that matters. But To The Wonder, as with all Malick movies, has more hope.

Hushpuppy’s Cosmos-perspectice is that: “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece… the entire universe will get busted.”

In Malick’s movies no one thinks this. All the pieces can be out of whack and the “Love that loves us” will still make things right. I wanted To The Wonder to end differently. I wanted Neil to be changed by his friendship with Fr. Quintana so much that he and Marina could be happy. I am spoiling nothing by saying that doesn’t happen. But to close the story off like that is too neat and too easy. Instead, Neil ends happy, but elsewhere. Because all the small busted pieces won’t bust the entire universe.

Which is not to say that Beasts of the Southern Wild is a stupid movie. It isn’t! It is beautiful and funny and in its own way, true. When Hushpuppy’s moment finally comes and she says to her fears, “You’re my friend, kind of” something lovely is depicted in a lovely way that redoubles the loveliness. Those haunting fears that chase us down, they spur us on.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a better reviewed movie. Maybe that is because movie critics are better able to judge a film than I can. Or maybe in retrospect, the movies Malick has made will continue to attract careful watchers, who when they listen, will find something unique. Beasts of the Southern Wild is unashamedly and impressively a movie that shares the philosophy of a six year old girl. But our philosophies mature. They go past the silliness of Marina’s Italian friend Anna who sees nothing of value in the small Oklahoma town they find themselves in.

And there, To The Wonder, directed by a man who translated Heidegger, is shown to be a deeper (not necessarily better or more enjoyable) (and maybe this is a worthless prize to win when talking about films anyway) movie. Hushpuppy and Wink look over at industrial New Orleans and see ugliness. They refrain from using tools when they can. Civilization itself is unvcivilized.

But when the Parisian Marina arrives in Smalltown USA, she is taken by it. The movie starts on the sophisticated streets of old Europe but it plays out on the plains which she declares “honest”. The humdrum of human settlement, domestication, civilization is a part of the “wonder”, not something that mars it. This reverence for nature in the midst of suburbia survives even as her marriage doesn’t.

The stark dichotomies between the “innocent wilderness” and the “fishtank without water” of urbanity in Beasts of the Southern Wild makes the philosophical perspective easier to digest. This is an irony. Because the movie that is at peace with the supermarket “Everything is so clean!” is the movie that gets closer down to the raw marrow of reality.

Of course, I haven’t eaten a real meal in three days due to the Winter Vomiting Bug so I could just be full of crap.

Your Correspondent, His obese toddler did his stepfather’s make-over.

2 Replies to “Beasts of the Southern Wild and To The Wonder”

  1. Great post. I have seen both of these films, and have been given good reason to see them again after your analysis.

    I think your reading of To the Wonder is half correct. If I’m not mistaken, Neil is an environmental engineer who is investigating the damage done by some industry. Human settlement is, for Malick, ambiguous. The abbey at Mont St Michel that bookends the film is perhaps a sign that human settlement is not doomed, however, provided we remember our proper foundations. The New World is an even better example of this Malickian theme, with Rebecca (aka Pocahantas) playing the role of Marina. (And at 61% on Rotten Tomatoes, it is quite possibly one of the most underrated films in the history of cinema.)

    As for the film itself, the scenes move quickly but two stand out: when Rachel McAdams is throwing bails of hay into a vehicle, and when Neil seeks forgiveness from his wife. “Emotive” would be the word I’d use if I was writing a junior cert essay on a poem.

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