A new film from a Texas writer and director should be seen by everyone who cares about the environment and the protection of wildlife and wild places. It’s called “Deep in the Heart,” from Ben Masters.
The movie celebrates what makes Texas different, its diverse landscapes and wildlife. But it also takes an unusual tack. It tells the story through the eyes of wildlife, from ocelots to bison to fish and bears.
Unlike many documentaries about nature, however, this one has a special feature: an interpretive and sometimes humorous narration by Matthew McConaughey of Austin, using the script by Masters.
The movie follows a structured path to explore the wonders of the Lone State State, starting in the High Plains of the Panhandle. We learn about how 5 million bison in Texas were slaughtered in the late 1800s, with just a few remaining before the efforts of Molly Goodnight, who urged her husband Charles Goodnight to set aside 600 acres to help prevent the animal’s demise.
Descendants of those bison live in the Caprock Canyons State Park. Carefully placed cameras detail the life cycle of the bison, with the introduction of new calves who are learning to run. And it’s thrilling to see them so clearly, without having to risk your life like some tourists have soon recently by intruding upon their space.
The bison recovery has a long way to go in Texas, but the recovery of the white-tailed deer is far more successful. Today, there are more than 5 million white-tailed deer in the state, and Masters and his photographic crew capture images of the deer as they go into breeding season, with battles between big-antlered bucks for territory.
The movie team then takes us to southern Texas, near the coasts, to look at an animal whose fate is still threatened. It’s the mythical ocelot, with fewer than 80 known to exist today in the United States.
The “Deep in the Heart” team managed to place cameras in areas where the ocelot is known to live, and we see photos of a mama ocelot with two kittens. She leaves her kittens in the brush to try to find food. And McConaughey narrates as she stalks an armadillo. But the birds in the area alert other animals to the presence of a predator, and the armadillo gets away. Or, as McConaughey says, the ocelot has been “busted.”
Some of the most thrilling cinematography comes in the section devoted to the Texas Hill County, where life underwater is the focus. As the movie points out, much of the Hill County sits above the Edwards Plateau, which soaks up water like a sponge and keeps it underground, until it begins to come back up as springs that feed our rivers.
McConaughey goes into total Texas drawl as he describes the mating season of the Guadalupe bass, which are rare and facing numerous threats. Remarkably, the movie shows a male bass scouring a riverbed for a proper mating site. The site needs to be clean of dirt in order to attract a female, so the male uses his fins to sweep away the grit from the riverbed rocks.
The male bass rejects several early sites for mating, especially a sunken tire, which inspires McConaughey to imitate the bass and say this ain’t Oklahoma. The bass finally finds a good spot, and we see a female who comes calling. After a courting dance, the female releases her eggs, and the male aerates with eggs with his fins and then fertilizes them. Then it’s up to the male to hang around and protect the fertilized eggs until they hatch and become viable fish. This takes about a month. And all of this is caught on camera, with judicious editing.
From there we move to Bracken Cave Preserve in Comal County, where 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats live. Cameras show the flight of bats from their caves and rocky dwellings, as they feed upon insects. They have to fly above the vegetation and tree line, and the biggest threat is to fly too low and collide with a bush. It’s not explained how the crew for “Deep in the Heart” managed to capture the scenes of a few bats who collide with bushes and try to free themselves, but it’s some of the most intense footage in the movie. (As with most scenes, it looks like the film crew studied the best places to embed cameras.)
The intensity of the scenes, as McConaughy explains, comes from nearby snakes who are waiting for bats trapped in the bushes. McConaughey points out that baby bats, or pups, are in the most danger, because they don’t have the strength to take flight without being high on a rocky cliff or ledge to get ballast under their wings.
So we watch as several pups desperately try to gnaw themselves free from the bush and climb the nearby rocks to take flight. But the snakes keep coming. And we get a vivid closeup of one snake swallowing a pup. But another pup manages to climb up some rocks and make it to safety by flying away.
And if the snakes don’t get you, well, the red-tailed hawks or falcons just might. They fly near the outskirts of the bats’ swarm and pick off less-than-savvy pups, one by one, with their claws.
No Texas nature documentary would be complete without a visit to Big Bend National Park, and here we get a close-up look at black bears and mountain lions. In the park, mountain lions and bears are protected, but lions tend to have a big range that can take them out of the protected areas and into places where there are traps laid by ranchers to protect livestock.
In some parts of the United States, it’s illegal to lay traps for mountain lions, but not in Texas, and thousands are killed, often left to die of dehydration and exposure. In Texas, you are not required to check the traps, either.
“Deep in the Heart” ends with a segment on the Big Thicket and the Piney Woods, as well as the Gulf Coast. In the early days of settlement, the forests of East Texas were cut down, but in recent decades, through conservation efforts, forests have grown back. Cameras capture the daily life of the large alligator gar of the wetlands. They also show the “monsters of ambush,” the gators who prey on migratory birds attracted to the coastal marshes. And yes, we see gators as they chomp on beautiful birds. Hey, it’s nature, and it can be brutal.
From there, we see the fantastic reefs some 100 miles east of Galveston, where some of the world’s most healthy coral reefs buzz with wildlife. Again, cameras show how the reefs survive, with their spawning cycles: Polyps are released and then those polyps fertilize their offspring. It’s something that has rarely been captured on film, but the “Deep in the Heart” crew does it well.
And that brings up an important point: The heart of “Deep in the Heart,” besides the directing and editing, is the cinematography. So any review would be remiss to not mention the names of those behind the images.
The director of photography is Skip Hobbie, but he has 10 cinematographers. They are: Austin Alvarado, Ryan Olinger, Shannon Vandiver, Hayes Bailey, Patrick Thrash, Brian Mohair, Peter Kragh, Filipe Deandrade, Christian Von Preysing and Michael Stangl.
The editor who put all of this together in a seamless way is Sam Klatt, with the help of assistant editor Juli Keller.
The producers are Katy Baldock and Jay Kleberg, both of whom live in Austin. Kleberg (as in Kleberg County and the King Ranch) is running for Texas Land Commissioner, fyi.
Kleberg also was part of the team who worked with Masters on his previous documentary, “The River and the Wall,” which explored the environmental impact of Donald Trump’s proposed border wall.
“Deep in the Heart” is playing at two local theaters: the Austin Film Society and the Regal Arbor. For those who can’t make the theatrical screenings, “Deep in the Heart” will be available on demand, starting July 18, on Apple TV, Prime Video and Google Play.