October is a good month for horror movies, but in the real world, Halloween’s Michael Myers has nothing on nutria. As seen in the documentary Rodents of Unusual Size, which debuted last month, nutria are massive swamp rats with garish orange teeth that can weigh up to 20 pounds. Native to South America, nutria were brought to the United States in the 1930s, and when some escaped from their cages, it triggered the start of a destructive rodent invasion, one that locals are still trying to fight back.
Rodents of Unusual Size sounds like it should be a horror movie — especially if you’re one of the many, many people who are afraid of tiny mice, let alone these giants. The poster looks like a combination of the rat-centric horror film Willard and the chilling documentary Blackfish. However, it’s really not as scary as all that, even if, in a classic horror trope, the bad guys haven’t been permanently vanquished.
“I think we had intended it to be a little more lighthearted a film, in a way, than it was,” director Jeff Springer told SYFY WIRE following a screening in Stamford, Connecticut, in early October.
Nutria, whose population exploded after the fur trading industry collapsed, have done tremendous damage to the Louisiana coast, eating vegetation and hollowing-out wetlands that used to stand as a bulwark against hurricanes. But despite their staying power, nutria aren’t really the focus of the documentary. Instead, Springer and his team explore how some of the residents of Delacroix Island cope with these buck-toothed invaders. Some, like the ostensible “main character” Thomas Gonzales, cruise around the swamps in fan boats, shooting any nutria they see and cutting off their tails for the state’s bounty. Others are trying to revive the fur industry or to create a culinary demand for the critters — a hard sell, since they’re big rodents.
So are rabbits, though, and we eat them.
“We eat crab, and crabs are one of the most awful-looking creatures imaginable,” Springer says.
Nutria pose a threat to Delacroix Island, but as seen in the documentary, the residents seem to be managing. Louisiana’s Nutria Control Program, which pays a $5 bounty for every nutria tail hunters like Gonzales bring in, has actually been successful; the nutria population has shrunk from 25 million to just a few million, largely because of these efforts.
Despite the damage they’ve done, though, nutria have become ingrained in the fabric of local culture; these not-so-wee beasts are in zoos and serve as minor league mascots, even if they aren’t on the menu.
Rodents of Unusual Size ends on a wistful, borderline hopeful note, but Springer doesn’t hesitate to call it “a depressing situation,” perhaps more so than the film lets on.
“We’re very optimistic about the nutria control program, that is definitely a success,” he says. “But there are things like land loss that’s just not going to be recovered.
“It’s not just the nutria by any means. We hint at that, but there’s sea rise, there are things like saltwater intrusion in the area,” Springer adds, explaining that the rodents are just one problem facing the region. And, as the effects of global warming continue, the giant rats are the easiest facet to handle.
“Louisiana loses a football field an hour to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s crazy,” Springer says. “If you look at a map of Louisiana — what Louisiana actually looks like — it’s just full of holes. A lot of that land isn’t coming back.
“Even with the nutria in check, it’s really a hard uphill battle,” he says.
The rats are icky and the coastal situation seems dire for more reason than just their presence, but Rodents of Unusual Size is lighthearted at times, which Springer says reflects how the people of Louisiana deal with the situation.
“They can go party and have a good time and still be talking about the hurricanes and things. It’s almost like their way of coping with tragedy is with this joie de vivre kind of attitude,” he says.
Still, there’s something terrifying in the movie, something bigger than the 20-pound swamp rats. It’s the uneasy, melancholy sense that things that were once in our control have grown unstoppable, that even as we fight back against the tides (or nutria), the era will end one way or another. It’s almost too big to be horrifying; just sad and existential.
But, there is one other horror trope that the documentary completely nails: a little sympathy for the villain.
“The people fighting for their land, they are fighting for their livelihood and these nutria are destroying it, but the nutria didn’t ask to be brought here,” Springer says. “They’re just trying to survive too.”