In “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” one of the most enthusiastically received movies on the art-house circuit this summer, young newcomer Quevenzhane Wallis portrays a fearless 6-year-old girl named Hushpuppy who embarks on a quest to save the shacks and shanties of her impoverished bayou community, called the Bathtub, from environmental and existential disaster.
While the film’s young heroine, strikingly imaginative visual design and themes of collective care and solidarity present an exhilarating image of the dispossessed and forgotten, an inescapable air of romanticism pervades the enterprise. Too often, the citizens of the Bathtub are presented as the picturesque, exotic creatures of the film’s title, rather than fully realized human beings. What’s more, the movie’s idea of a happy ending is for Hushpuppy and her friends to stay where they are — ferociously independent, yes, but still isolated and marginalized.
For pure, unvarnished contempt of the poor, though, no movie this year will be able to compete with “Killer Joe,” which is due to open here next week. The movie, based on Tracy Letts’s play, stars Matthew McConaughey as a corrupt Texas policeman who preys on a dysfunctional family living in moral turpitude amid the drug paraphernalia, beer cans and fast-food detritus of a squalid trailer. An unremittingly rancid portrait of slatternly sexuality, blighted intelligence and pathological depravity, “Killer Joe” traffics in every cliche conjured by the odious term “trailer trash.” Indeed, watching the film’s characters, it seems that Letts and director William Friedkin had finally found the winners of the Filthiest People Alive contest that John Waters staged to such outre effect in his 1972 comedy “Pink Flamingos.”
Of course, Waters treated the trailer-dwellers in “Pink Flamingos” the way he treats all his fictional characters — with affectionate, albeit bent, compassion. No such warmth imbues “Killer Joe,” which drips with superiority and lazy hyperbole. Rather, the drawlin’, brawlin’ souls who dwell in Letts’s vinyl-sided dead end seem just one meth lab away from the toothless, tweaked-out denizens of “Winter’s Bone,” the art-house hit of 2010 that devolved into a gothic burlesque of rural poverty.