Wildlife stars Carey Mulligan as Jeanette, mother to Joe (Ed Oxenbould) and wife of Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal). Jeanette is a complex woman with a strong instinct for survival. The film is set in the early 1960’s and the family at the heart of this story has just moved to Montana as Jerry searches for regular work. Most recently, he’s been working at a golf course. When he loses that job over his pride, the strain on the family becomes too much.
Deep in the distance from their small town Montana home, over a ridge of mountains, there is a wildfire raging. Men are coming between the town and the fire with stories of many a man being injured severely or killed. Firefighters can make good money but they have to live to collect it. Desperate for a job, Jerry signs on to become a firefighter and Jeanette is desperately upset. You assume her hurt is concern for Jerry’s well being but there is so much more to it. The job means Jerry could be gone for weeks or months at a time.
Eventually, with money tight, Jeanette herself gets a job teaching swimming at the local YMCA. It’s there that she meets Warren Miller (Joe Camp). We, the audience, only view their relationship through the eyes of Joe and that view is course and unforgiving. One day Joe comes home from his own job, working for a local photographer, to find Mr Miller making himself at home on the couch. The tension is thick and the implications are even thicker.
Mr Miller is not what many would call a handsome man. He’s middle aged and thick in the middle but he dresses well and he has a big car. Mr Miller has what Jerry doesn’t have, financial security. Mr Miller is the owner of a local car dealership and he has a large home in a nice neighborhood. Joe’s eyes tell the story better than anything as he turns his accusing glance to his mother while giving his concern to his absent father.
Wildlife was co-written by Paul Dano with his wife Zoe Kazan, and directed by Dano in his directorial debut. My description would indicate that the story makes Jeanette the villain, alienating her husband’s affections in favor of the comforts of financial security. But, Wildlife is much stronger and more complicated than that. Jerry is not a saintly victim here, he’s crude and driven to flights of anger and alcoholism. Jeanette meanwhile is a good mother who does what she does in part for Joe and in part out of the fear and uncertainty of a world where women were only beginning to assert their independence.
The movie is based on a 1990 bestseller of the same name by Richard Ford and Dano and Kazan’s script is a bare bones adaptation. Dano has taken the text and made much of subtext by relying his actors to get across the reams of inner story that you’d find on the pages of a novel, into looks, gestures and a much tighter amount of dialogue. It’s a smart play as these four actors at the center of this story are superb at saying everything while saying very little.
Young Ed Oxenbould is the main character here and for a young actor he has some real heavy lifting here. Not many actors Oxenbould’s age would have the talent to stand toe to toe with Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal but Oxenbould does and fares exceptionally well. He’s witnessing these major dramatic shifts in his home life while himself being an at an age when he’s just coming of age and beginning to experience life.
Take the film’s most powerful moment. Jeanette wants Joe to go with her to a dinner at Mr Miller’s home. It’s the last thing Joe wants to do as he’s been desperately trying to find ways to bring his broken family back together. The dinner is terribly awkward with Jeanette drinking heavily and beginning to act out. The scene plays as if Jeanette is trying to show Joe the lengths she feels forced to go to care for the two of them, that she must make a spectacle of herself over Mr Miller to assure his continued kindness.
Joe’s reaction is desperate and sad and drives a wedge between mother and son that may or may not be repairable. It’s a masterfully played scene brimming with conflicting emotions. Mulligan’s desperate attempts to appear at ease and in the moment are heart rending but it’s Oxenbould’s reaction, his inability or unwillingness to understand his mother’s perspective that gives the scene a gut punching power.
Wildlife is exceptionally acted and well directed. For a debut feature, it is no surprise that Paul Dano is an actor at heart. He gives his actors room to breathe and live within their characters. He’s terrific at letting a scene build in tension and allowing it to play out in a fashion that is dramatic and yet authentic. I’m excited to see what the actor turned director does next. If Wildlife is an indication, we can expect something incredible.