Naughty By Nature: Films That Wrestle With Instinct Over Intellect
Much like those of us here at Back Row, movies spend a lot of time ruminating on how much of who we are is inherent and how much is learned. The question is sometimes focused on base instincts, other times it’s focused on upbringing. Here, we’re going to point the question directly at the core fear around which these musings orbit: what if nothing about us is a choice?
Humans walk a funny tightrope between free will and helplessness. To admit to having no control is to relinquish responsibility but that also leaves us at the mercy of unknown powers or simple luck. Someone who feels in their soul that they are bad or beyond help might just give in to their darker urges without resistance. But infinitely more interesting for a viewer is the struggle of keeping the wicked parts of them contained. In a film, this becomes a rifle over the mantle as we all unconsciously accept that one can only push against their true nature for so long. Ask any family-values politician who’s gotten caught soliciting sex from other men in a truck stop bathroom. They’ll tell ya.
When the question falls on children, it creates an interesting tension on both sides. We naturally have a sense of compassion towards a child who feels like they’re bad or wrong because we know how little control they have over their lives. Kids are piecing together how the world works while simultaneously being lied to by authority figures so their barometers aren’t really accurate. The concept of good versus bad, right versus wrong in a child’s mind might not really line up with the (vaguely) agreed upon definition. In the Brazilian werewolf movie Good Manners / As Boas Maneiras (2018), the question of evil being nurtured out of a child gets proposed and ultimately, bloodily, answered.
The true protagonist in Good Manners is Clara (Isabel Zauu who gives an amazingly realistic performance), a solitary and somewhat stoic nurse who finds herself in the situation of having to raise someone else’s baby. The mother Ana (Marjorie Estiano), with whom Clara had started a relationship, died in childbirth – though calling it childbirth is a bit disingenuous. In the first graphic scene of the movie, we see Ana’s corpse after the baby has ripped its way out of her. Clara, despite being the one to discover the horrific scene, decides to take care of the baby anyhow.
Prior to Ana’s death, she confided in Clara that she didn’t know the man who impregnated her well and that the night they had sex was a bizarre one, complete with a hazy vision of some wolf-like beast. Knowing this, and being the type of person who seemingly always has a plan, Clara raises Joel (the aptly named Miguel Lobo) with incredible care to what he is. She forbids him to eat meat by claiming he’s allergic, and has a special room in their apartment to lock him in when he turns into a wolf. This all works for awhile but as Joel reaches a more skeptical age, he begins pushing back and demanding answers from Clara, answers that she doesn’t have.
Good Manners is a character study with a monster-movie element more than it’s a pure horror movie. The dynamic between Clara and Joel moves in very natural beats, creating the domestic rhythms of a family drama that happens to have quite serious consequences hanging over it; Joel’s decision to spend a night hiding out in the mall with his friend results in a said friend dying in terror and being eaten, rather than just being a dumb kid-thing to do. What Clara understands, and struggles to relate to Joel, is that he is at the mercy of a latent nature. No matter how strict she was or how many ways she tried to tamp it down, when the monster wanted to take over there was nothing she could do.
Kids not fitting into so-called polite society is one thing. Who hasn’t torn a friend to shreds at least once? Full grown adults who can’t be bothered to join us is another.
The Woman (2011) is a horror movie from indie director Lucky McKee that centers on a frighteningly straight-laced American family whose patriarch, Chris (Sean Bridgers), comes across a feral woman (Pollyanna Mcintosh) living in the woods. Chris captures the woman, as one does in such a situation, brings her back to the homestead, and decides to integrate her into society. If you haven’t noticed yet, people “deciding” what’s going to happen to someone else is a big theme in these movies.
With the woman chained in a root cellar, the family goes about the uncomfortable business of “civilizing” her. The daughter Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter) is the most vocally against what is happening but it falls on deaf ears. Chris’s violent stranglehold on his family means he always gets his way. On top of that, he truly believes he can turn a feral human who seems to have no interest in existing any other way into a normal member of society. The woman is content with her life in the woods; she looks well-fed and powerful. Only Chris thinks she needs rescuing, even his version of rescuing which involves throwing boiling water on her and raping her. (Gotta get her used to what society does to ladies, after all.)
Considering The Woman often gets rightly touted as a feminist horror movie, it’s pretty obvious that Chris is not going to be victorious here. In the final scene of the movie where Peggy lets the woman free and all hell breaks loose, we witness the morals of the woman being played out. She harms those who have harmed her or those she considers useless. The daughters of the family are spared and even welcomed into her clan. She’s not a ferocious killing machine or a wild animal that won’t be stopped; she recognizes friends and goodness as defined by her own code of honor.
The final movie, Spring (2014), revolves around a couple where the woman harbors a secret. A young American man Evan (Lou Taylor Pucci) meets Louise (Nadia Hilker) an attractive and direct woman with an unplaceable accent. They have sex without protection at Louise’s insistence. Credit to the movie for showing Evan as the one who gets out a condom – sure, in the end he winds up raw doggin’ it, but he was ready to be safe and responsible instead of leaving that concern to his female counterpart. Either way, a nod to directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead for including that detail.
As Evan begins to fall pretty hard for Louise, the audience gets to see the weird transformation Louise is trying to keep from him. She injects herself with a serum when her body starts growing scales and tails but it’s not sustainable. One night, Evan arrives at her house to find a dress-wearing creature on the kitchen floor with a syringe just out of reach. When he injects the creature, it turns back into Louise. She reluctantly explains that she’s an unknown animal that’s over 2,000 years old, and on a twenty year cycle she must be impregnated so that she can use the cells from the embryo to regenerate into a different form.
Oxytocin, the chemical released when humans fall in love, will impede the regeneration process so Louise makes it super clear to Evan that she’s not in love with him no matter how much he loves her. They spend her last 24 hours as Louise together while Evan tries to convince her not to change. Louise tells him it’s out of her control and that her body does what it wants. When it comes time for the transformation to happen, Louise remains in her human form indicating she fell in love with Evan.
Louise is unaware of the chemical reaction going on inside of her. In the 2,000 years she’s been alive, she’s studied herself and knows how the process works but not how to stop it or change it. She is completely at the mercy of some protocol hardwired into her, one that she doesn’t seem eager to override. Louise enjoys her immortality, going so far as to tell Evan she wouldn’t give it up for anyone. With this is mind, the ending implies that Louise may not be very happy about her regeneration ending and becoming mortal. Like the feral woman, she’s found a way of life she likes and sees no reason to change it.
Each of us struggles with our own natures on a less fantastical level. We struggle with what is expected of us or what others think is right for us. Most of all, we struggle with our brains and bodies, finding an uneasy separation between them. We control so little, be it chemicals released or physical reactions. Like all the characters in these movies, human or otherwise, we’re all just guessing and hoping we’re right. Fingers crossed that our nature doesn’t get in our way.