by Bennett Campbell Ferguson
They’re in the ground. They’re scurrying on a golf course. They’re lurking outside your house. Their dark eyes gleam scarily and their whiskers stick out like daggers ready to stab anyone who crosses them.
The animals I am speaking of are nutria, semiaquatic rodents that can weigh 15-22 pounds and have infested over a dozen states in the U.S. Given their decidedly not-cute features (slimy-looking tails, gargantuan teeth), they don’t look like potential movie stars. Yet “Rodents of Unusual Size,” a documentary about the nutria infestation of Louisiana that screens at the Clinton St. Theater this Thursday and Friday, is an entertaining and enlightening epic packed with ingenious insights into both human and animal nature.
“Rodents,” which was directed by Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler, and Jeff Springer, begins with an aging nutria hunter, Thomas Gonzales, on the prowl. “We gotta keep fightin’ ’em,” he says, sounding as fearsome as John Wayne in “The Searchers.” Soon, we learn that Gonzales has good reason to go on the offense: nutria, the film says, are an environmental menace and are multiplying at a ghastly rate.
The introduction of Gonzales sets the stage for a lovely and lyrical animated sequence that outlines the rise of nutria—how they were a highly sought-after commodity until animal rights protests largely put the kibosh on fur market, leading to dangerous overpopulation. By the time “Rodents” begins, citizens are taking up arms for Louisiana’s nutria control program, which pays five dollars per kill.
Much of the film is focused on these hunters. Yet in its most potent passages, “Rodents” explores the state’s complex relationship with the creatures. Nutria may be pests, but we see at least one Louisiana resident argue that they should be treated with compassion and we even meet a nutria hunter who keeps one as a pet.
In other words, while “Rodents” is essentially a war film about an army of disparate soldiers battling an enemy who threatens their beleaguered home, it is too smart to ignore the truth—that the “enemy” is as much a part of Louisiana as gumbo (we even see nutria embraced as an athletic mascot).
Hence the strange and conflicted beauty of the film’s shots of nutria lurking in both urban and rural landscapes. These animals may be at once weird and peculiarly endearing in their ugliness, but the film reminds us that above all, they are everywhere.