RATING: [B-|🍅]

“And what there is to learn from almost any human experience is that your own interests usually do not come first where other people are concerned–even the people who love you–and that is all right. It can be lived with.”

[Richard Ford]

Among some of the better directorial debut from 2018 (Hereditary, Eighth Grade, Blindspotting) comes one deserving of Paul Dano. A complex and rich story centered on a single woman’s seeming affair to move along the boundaries of her existence in the measures she deems necessary. Wildlife is not going to be a favorite for most people with its measured pace and unsteady characters. But it’s full of rich nuance that makes for an intensely satisfying film to discuss.

The father (Jake Gyllenhaal) removes himself from the family to go fight a fire without any seeming rhyme or reason aside, perhaps, because of an underlying sense he feels at home of being a vocational disappointment and wanting a break from feeling of failure. This one strand informs much of the relational dynamic of the film and must be understood within the context of who the mother is.

The son (Ed Oxenbould), the single strand of good intention and stability, seeking to bridge the family disconnect as illustrated in the fine last photo he takes. Being subjected to the burning in the forest, he is overcome by the sheer destruction of a conflagration with the capacity to destroy the wildlife with no one able to control the consequences except nature (or another Force Majorie) itself. In that moment, he sees his own family. He sees his own position in the burning. And, his face says it all.

And then there’s the mother, played brilliantly by Carey Mulligan as the final manifestation of the family dynamic and a sense of her own inability to control the dying flames of her marriage. Her disconnect and communication with her son spells of a mother who was placed in her position perhaps unwittingly.  Her constant references to her age and youth suggests some unbridged insecurities that remain dormant while she moves from place to place in hopes of fulfilling the patriarchal norms of her position. She seems to live in a single moment of her past and everything after is a dream she remains inside just waiting to wake up. “I feel like I need to wake up,” she confesses to her son. “But I don’t know what from, or to.” Eventually, her own undoing becomes clear. As the father leaves, she becomes distant and self-consumed. She becomes the symbolic conflagration in her own home without a sense of propriety as she takes her son from one forest into another (i.e. man’s home) as the fulfillment of a broken act as though survival was her most basic need. Mulligan plays her role to a tee: subdued and yet remarkably dynamic in the glances and choices of language. Unwilling to even see her husband as she drives past the camp into the fire.

Dano selects an appropriate film to begin a career in directing given his complicated career and fine craftsmanship as an actor. A film well adapted by him and Zoe Kazan in its ability to nuance the complications of Richard Ford’s book. An incredibly well-balanced film that speaks about the struggles and consequences of family life and our inability to become the products that we once envisioned for our children. A film that speaks about the beauty and defeat of marriage and parenting, and perhaps captures some of that divide in that brilliant last photo. Not since Blue Valentine has there been an American film with the impact felt here.

A film that sends a warning: parenting may not come naturally.