Life Through the Lens: What’s left after the fire subsides?

“We don’t have control. We just watch it burn.”

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Fire is consuming. Fire is life-giving when contained but death-dealing when it is loose. Fire is unconcerned with what lies in its path, indifferent to the destruction left in its wake. Beauty, value, potential — these things mean nothing to a hungry fire. Indiscriminately, it devours all and leaves ash as its parting gift.

I have seen this fire before. Heck, I’ve felt this fire before. I remember moments where my anger would swell, the heat becoming too much to handle, the smoke clouding my vision. The fire in me demanded to be satisfied. Through the flames, these people around me were no longer human…they were objects yet-to-be-seared. They were meat ’bout to be cooked, son!

I’ve felt other fires before, as well. The blistering fires of inadequacy. The distorting fires of jealousy. The hazy fires of ignorance. The excruciating fires of “JUST GO ALREADY THE LIGHT IS GREEN YOU CRAZY DRIVER IS THIS YOUR FIRST DAY DRIVING?” The disappointing fires of television-season-finales. No matter the spark, the fire takes over…and fire does what it does: it burns until the fuel is expended.

Sadly, I already see this fire in my children. Although innocent and pure, fire finds them just-the-same. Anger will flood their senses, consciousness fades into flame, and they go stinkin’ crazy! My little babies turn into beasts straight-outta-the-forest. Animal, instinctual, primal…even in my two-year-old! We are born highly-flammable! The fire in us all is only a spark away from a full-blown wildfire.

Wildlife begins with a simple family moving to small town Montana in the 1960s. Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) has lost his job…again…and this time the new job required an upheaval and relocation. Although exciting in its own way, this is a strain. A strain on his wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan). A strain on his son Joe (Ed Oxenbould). Jerry is positive, though; he sees this is fresh and invigorating…until he loses his job again.

This new pressure is almost unbearable. In a new city, friendless and verging on penniless, this small family is against the wall. Jerry’s pride is too great to grovel, and Jeanette’s disdain is too strong to deny. Then there is poor lil’ Joe…where does he fit in the tension rising daily? He loves, but love seems to be running a tad dry in the Brinson household.

When a job presents itself, Jerry accepts. This job, though, is fighting a wildfire-gone-rampant. Literally. He has to leave his home and only return when the job is done…or when his charred-body is returned to his loved ones. Dangerous and demanding…but at least it is a job. Right?

As soon as the door closes on Jerry’s decision, Jeanette is done. She becomes self-sufficient and self-loathing at the same time. She loses touch with everything, her son included. Joe watches as his mother spirals out of control, unable to stop the descent.

This movie is director Paul Dano’s first film. You will be shocked at that fact because this film has expert grace and depth. Dano, also the screenwriter, has captured something remarkable: an honest portrayal of brokenness and rejection. It also walks a beautiful line between realism and symbolism; the analogy of the wildfire is astounding. In a brilliant moment, Jeanette drives her young-son to the front of the wildfire in order to show him what his father chose over him. “What happens to the wildlife?” he asks her. “They move on and adapt. The little ones, though, perish in the fire,” she replies. That sentiment is convicting, to say the least! It is the small ones who cannot escape the fire.

Jake Gyllenhaal does a great job as Jerry, sacrificial yet selfishly-unaware. Carry Mulligan slays her role as Jeanette, pained yet purposeful yet pleading; it is a role that is unshakable and disturbing.

I also found the cinematography of Diego Garcia moving. More than just the scenery (which was wonderful), it was the prolonged shots of genuine emotion that struck me. Twice in the film, the camera refused to leave Joe during highly emotional scenes: watching his dad drive away and watching his mom fade away. Both times, Joe’s eyes tell such a rich story usually lost to quick-cuts. Even as the child of the house, Joe feels greatly and struggles with his lack of control of this situation.

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Beautiful Boy begins in desperation: David Sheff (Steve Carell) is speaking to a counselor about his troubled son. No more lies and deception, David KNOWS that his son is in the grip of drugs.

The movie then begins to weave memories and present into the story of this now-seemingly-lost boy, Nic (Timothee Chalamet). Even as a child of divorce and separation, Nic appeared to be “normal.” David poured into his son, believing that he was raising a well-adjusted boy of taste and talent. Sure, he skewed a bit dark and brooding…but that is a phase, right? Although signs abound and hints are placed, David remained oblivious until, in the words of David, he simply looked into his son’s eyes one day and ceased to recognize him. Nic had been overcome.

The film continues to juxtapose pleasant memories paired next to terrible modern-happenings. For every “father-and-son laughing” memory in the car comes a “father driving around looking for his now-homeless, drug-addicted son in the rain” current truth. David is determined to drag his beloved son out of this state…but his remaining family is yearning for their daddy’s attention and care, as well. How much can you give when it is being rejected and discarded? How can you help someone who doesn’t want to be helped?

Although the love is never in question, will an “I’ll do anything for you” mentality eventually exhaust itself? Sometimes a fire cannot be extinguished.

Being a father myself, especially of younger kids, this movie was cautionary and upsetting. Seeing a father helplessly watch as his son, his love, his all, slips away into something so dark and destructive…it was excruciating. Placing my darling-children anywhere near this topic is almost too much to take. How could someone you know so well become such a stranger? If given the chance, the fire of drug-addiction can be a force seemingly-stronger than love — that is quite a sobering fact.

Steve Carell is great as David; he definitely brings a sincerity needed for a role such as this. Timothee Chalamet is quite astounding as drug-riddled Nic. His vulnerability is tangible — he gives everything he’s got to bring this true story to light. If for no other reason, seeing this great acting performance is worth the price of admission.

Stylistically speaking, it didn’t always fully connect; emotion and “punch” seemed lost in the fray at times. Even in a subject so passionate, there seemed to be an extra layer that was never quite uncovered.

The title comes from John Lennon’s song “Beautiful Boy.” If you are looking for a good cry, listen to those lyrics in the shadow of a father watching drugs possess his son… “Close your eyes / Have no fear / The monster’s gone / He’s on the run and your daddy’s here.” Please, God, keep drugs away from my sweet-children!

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REPORT CARD: Wildlife

Grade: A

Comment: The fire becomes so real you will need to shed your jacket

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REPORT CARD: Beautiful Boy

Grade: A-

Comment: A difficult story to tell but impossible to dismiss

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