Fine performances bolster Wildlife, Paul Dano’s excellent directorial debut. The movie, about a family falling apart in the early 1960s, is sometimes uncomfortable—just as it’s supposed to be, considering the subject matter.
Young Joe (Ed Oxenbould) is living a typical life in Montana. Mom, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), stays at home while dad, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), works a low-paying job at the local country club. Jerry urges Joe to try out for football, while Mom helps him with his studies. It’s not an ideal life; money clearly could be an issue if life takes a wrong turn.
Then comes that wrong turn.
When Jerry loses his job, a family meltdown takes place. Jerry becomes despondent, while Jeanette takes a job teaching swimming. Joe gets a part-time gig at a photography shop taking pictures, while Dad spirals further into depression.
When Jerry announces that he will be joining a firefighting team—despite almost no firefighting experience—Jeanette doesn’t take the news well. Jerry takes off into the mountains of Montana for low pay at high risk, while Jeanette and Joe fend for themselves back home. Jeanette accuses Jerry of running away from their problems and basically abandoning them, while Jerry sees his move as a more reputable and manly way to make money than shining a golfer’s shoes at a country club.
The stage is set for the best performance of Mulligan’s career, as Jeanette shows signs of insecurities and mental-health issues. Jerry shows the very same signs; Gyllenhaal is also amazing. As Jeanette’s behavior becomes erratic, with Jerry digging fire trenches in the mountains, Joe seems to be the only one in his family acting like an adult.
Dano (who co-wrote the script with his extremely talented partner, Zoe Kazan) does a beautiful and sometimes scary job of framing all of this through the eyes of Joe. We see the love both Jerry and Jeanette have for their son, even as their behavior ranges from pathetic to despicable. It’s the little things—like Jerry throwing a football to his boy, and mom solving a math problem with her son—that establish the undeniable family love. The couple is very likable, even as they are going off the rails.
Bill Camp also gives a fantastic performance as local businessman Warren Miller (no relation to the ski-film dude), whom Jeanette turns to while Jerry is away. He seems to be a decent-enough guy, discussing poetry with Jeanette in her living room and talking up Joe—even suggesting he’ll give Jerry a job when he comes back from the mountains. But it isn’t too long before Joe is spying Warren’s naked ass through the crack of his door as he approaches his mother.
One of the more impactful scenes in the film involves Jeanette driving Joe to the area where Jerry is fighting fires. Jeanette tells Joe to step out of the car to take a look. We just see Joe’s face as he uncomfortably stares at the fire, as if he’s observing his family’s oncoming disaster. The shot is followed by an actual view of the mountainside as it is rapidly consumed by flames. It’s a beautifully filmed moment.
All of these performers have great faces. Gyllenhaal says so much with a glare. There’s so much fear and uncertainty behind Mulligan’s smile, and Camp’s gentle expressions somehow denote a level of villainy. Oxenbould’s eyes just scream: “Adolescence is truly kicking my ass.”
Mulligan is most definitely in the hunt for Best Actress honors, while Gyllenhaal is having a fine year in supporting roles such as this and The Sisters Brothers. Oxenbould is somebody to keep watching, as is Dano as a director. Wildlife is loaded with talent—talent that is put to good use.
Wildlife is coming soon to local theaters.