Wild Signifiers in the Southern Wild

Beasts of the Southern Wild is rife with moments of significance, strong images that are ripe for interpretation. You could say this about many films, but this is different. In this case the intrigue comes from the fact that many of these signs and symbols are left loose. For instance there is a recurring image of giant prehistoric beasts lumbering through the landscape – yet it never forces you to take a view on just what this means. Similarly there is a memorable scene in a floating brothel and catfish shack.

We don’t think this is wishy washy relativism however. As the viewer you are left to make the choices about how you read these elements, equally you are left to ignore any symbolism and just take them at face value, yet somehow this never feels like indecisiveness or relativism. Instead it feels like a state of semiotic quantum superposition each sign means everything and nothing simultaneously, it’s up to the viewer to decide whether or not to open the box.

However, unlike the doomed cat, the act of observation doesn’t collapse the film into a single form.  While Americans might have difficulty seeing around Katrina or the romanticisation of the poor, a second (or third) viewing offers just as much potential for meaning, and different meaning, as the first.  It’s the strength of the core narrative, and the stellar performances of the little-known cast that allow the film to stay beautifully in this state of semiotic superposition.  The loose signification makes the experience a real treat- not because it is ambiguous, but because it is potent.


1 Comment

  1. Beautiful movie! It’s rich of those metaphors that save you words to give it a meaning. Those non-human beasts come (indeed) with lots of significance to the whole movie. In the box I chose to open there were those animals that were nothing but the non human form of the human beasts that shared the scene with them: same wildness, same relationship with the land, same vulnerability to the world, same repugnance to be tamed.

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