Set in Great Falls, Montana in 1960, the film tells the story of the peripatetic Brinson family; father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), mother Jeannette (Carey Mulligan), and 14-year-old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould). Having moved to Montana due to financial problems, the family again finds itself in trouble when Jerry is fired from his job at a country club. Although the club asks him to return soon thereafter, his pride won't allow him, and he instead takes a position fighting a forest fire near the Canadian border for a dollar-an-hour. Meanwhile, Jeannette gets work as a swimming instructor, and Joe begins working part-time in a portrait photo parlour. When Jerry leaves to go north, Jeanette accuses him of abandoning the family, and, overnight, her behaviour changes dramatically; she starts to dress differently, to wear her hair differently, to speak differently, to cease doing housework, to talk ill of Jerry in front of Joe, etc. Striking up a friendship with one of her swimming students, Warren Miller (a superb Bill Camp), a wealthy World War II vet with a car dealership, who is clearly romantically interested in her despite the difference in their ages, Jeanette soon stops even trying to hide from Joe the fact that she is extremely unhappy with Jerry, and there may be no way to repair the damage.
Nestled behind that simple narrative are the fledgling social upheavals, still very much in their infancy, that would characterise the duration of the 1960s, particularly the notions of what a woman's role should be in the home and the very definition of family itself. Initially, Jeanette is depicted as a quintessential 1950s wife and mother, almost to the point of cliché; she cooks, cleans, washes the clothes, does the dishes, sees that Joe attend to his homework, and when Jerry loses his job, it is Jeanette who goes out looking for work for both of them. She knows that her (unspoken and unacknowledged) role in this patriarchal society is to hold the family together, and it's a role that is nothing like she thought it would be when she was younger. Although she and Jerry seem to love one another, or they certainly used to, she clearly feels trapped by her domestic situation, so when Jerry takes off in a misguided attempt to reaffirm his masculinity by fighting a forest fire, something in Jeanette either snaps, or clicks into place, depending on your perspective.
However, although Jeanette may know she no longer wants to be a housewife, she has no idea what she does want, and her attempts to find out form the bulk of the narrative's conflict. Set three years prior to Betty Friedan's ground-breaking The Feminine Mystique, which redefined the parameters of all gender-based topics, depicting a society in which women were not content to do their husband's bidding, raise children, and stay quiet, Jeanette's story could very well have formed the template for Friedan's analysis. Suffocated by her current situation, she sees little hope of escape, until she realises the opportunity that Jerry leaving has presented to her.
I've seen several reviewers criticise the fact Jeanette goes from dutiful mother and loyal wife to a no-longer-maternal and possible adulteress literally overnight. However, for me, the fact that the transformation happens so quickly is exactly the point; when she goes to bed, she's a wife and mother, trapped in her domestic environment, but when she wakes the next morning, she realises that she has an opportunity to escape, perhaps the best opportunity she will ever get. This has been building up for years, but she has gotten so used to feeling lost that when she gets a chance to change things, she doesn't even recognise it as such, at least not at first. Once she does, however, Jeanette makes a conscious decision to stop performing the role delegated by men. As much of the female population of the western hemisphere would be asking over the next ten or so years, Jeanette wants to know, "is this all there is?" She wants more than simply getting through the day. In this sense, she recalls Nora Helmer from Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, Laura Brown from Michael Cunningham's The Hours, or any number of Tennessee Williams heroines - a woman who wakes up to find she has become deeply unhappy despite attaining everything she once wanted, and who sets out to do whatever it takes to alter her course. Determined to forge a new identity, she is adamant she won't become one of the "standing dead" (the term used for trees that survive a forest fire). The question is, can she do so without completely destroying her family. The film may ostensibly be a coming-of-age drama, but Jeanette's existential crisis is the real meat and potatoes.
That all is not well in the Brinson household is hinted at in the opening scene, where Jerry and Jeanette have a couple of inconsequential but noticeable disagreements over dinner (such as whether Joe should continue pursuing football). This scene establishes an assuredness and subtlety-of-hand that lasts for the entire film, with Dano's directorial work proving unexpectedly sophisticated. For example, something he does several times is have characters walk off-screen to speak, whilst keeping the camera trained on Joe as he tries to listen, with the dialogue barely perceptible from just off the edge of the frame. As well as being an excellent use of off-screen space, something you don't see too often, this technique ties us rigidly to Joe's POV early on, inculcating us into his worldview. Another very nice piece of direction is an early montage cutting between Jeanette riding her bike, Jerry driving the car, and Joe riding the bus, in which each character is facing a different direction, each in isolation from the other two. It's basic cinematic shorthand, showing instead of telling, but it's very well done. Equally impressive is the penultimate scene, where Dano uses the windows of the Brinson house to block the characters in such a way as to suggest both their inner emotions, and the prevailing theme at this point of the film. For the most part, however, Dano's direction is invisible, relying far more on static painterly compositions than camera movement (which is not to say the camera never moves). In this sense, Diego García's cinematography is not that different from what Joe himself is doing at his part-time job, something which again reinforces his subjective viewpoint.
Elsewhere, from an aesthetic point of view, the film's period detail is superb, with Akin McKenzie's production design, Miles Michael's art direction, and Amanda Ford's costume design absolutely immaculate. The school desks, the leg brace Miller wears, the supermarket layout, the radio, every detail seems utterly authentic. There is also an unnerving sense of calm throughout the whole film, but the kind of calm that seems posed to erupt into something undesirable at any time. Everything is measured and exact to the point where I was reminded of the work of Edward Hopper multiple times, particularly something like Chop Suey or Room in New York.
The acting, as you would expect, is universally superb. On paper, Jeanette and Miller are very much the villains of the piece, but Mulligan and Camp's performances are so full of warmth and genuine emotion that you simply can't look at them as antagonists, and the film itself never judges them. I've been a big fan of Camp since his brilliant turn as Frank Nitti in Michael Mann's Public Enemies, and with films like this and his Emmy nominated performance in The Night Of, it's terrific to see him start to get the kudos he deserves. He's especially good in the scene where he tells Joe a story about switching off the engine of his airplane in mid-air so he could glide silently with a flock of geese. It could be a narcissistic boast, it could be a metaphorical bit of advice, it could be an attempt to win Joe over, or it could simply be a way to try to connect. In Camp's hands, it's all of these, and more, playing Miller as both a letch but also someone in possession of an innate kindness, not an easy balancing act to pull off by any means.
Mulligan, for her part, plays Jeanette as utterly weary, much older than her years, at times fragile, at times rock solid, both vulnerable and manipulative. Full of anger, she simply can't hold in her emotions any more. Unfortunately, in letting them out, she betrays Joe by forgetting he is only 14-years-old. When she starts drunkenly dancing with him at Miller's house, the scene is deeply uncomfortable, but Mulligan's performance is such that we don't condemn her, at least, not completely. She never allows the audience to lose sight of the fact that although she is behaving rather poorly, she is a prisoner, and is reacting against her restraints as best she can.
Gyllenhaal's performance is more understated than Mulligan's, but no less impressive. Playing Jerry as someone who likes a drink, perhaps a little too much, he is the kind of person who blames everybody else for everything, and refuses to see the bad in himself - he bitterly tells Joe he was fired from the country club "because people like me too much." Dano is also astute enough to give his actors plenty of room to react (which obviously comes from his own acting background). A great deal of time is spent showing characters looking, listening, thinking etc, acting via silence, which is not something you see a lot of these days.
Of course, there are a few problems. Essentially a tale of marital angst, the narrative is not especially original - we've seen this story before, many times in fact, and for all the craft on display, Dano never really manages to say anything wholly original. Additionally, his measured direction is also too good in places - everything is so ordered, neat, and trim, that at times, the milieu doesn't seem lived-in, but more an abstract concept of what the period was like. The film could do with being a little messier in places, both in terms of direction and in terms of what's actually on-screen. Additionally, there are a few lines that sound great on paper, but which are just not the kind of things one says in real life. For example, Jeanette tells Joe, "I feel like I need to wake up, but I don't know what from, or what to". Later she says, "I wish I was dead. If you have a better plan for me, tell me. Maybe it'll be better than this". This kind of dialogue seems more interested in hitting thematic waypoints than developing character beats. Similarly, late in the film, Jerry says to Joe, "It's a wild life. Isn't it, son?" Proclaiming the film's title in this context doesn't even remotely work, and the line feels totally out of place, to the point of ripping you out of the narrative.
On the one hand, Wildlife is about how society was changing in 1960, and on the other, about how that change manifests itself within the Brinson family. Yes, it's another "death of the American dream" story in a long line of such films, but here, the focus is, for the most part, on character rather than theme, with Jeanette functioning in kind of a synecdochical manner; our specific entry point, she is the individual that facilitates an examination of the masses. And yes, Dano may take his eye off the ball a couple of times, with the odd bit of clunky dialogue, and a somewhat too picture-postcard perfection, but all in all, this is an excellent directorial debut.
I am a huge fan of Jake Gyllenhaal which is one of the reasons I came to see this film and though he is perfect in his role sadly he is missing from the middle of the movie. He, Jerry, is the husband of Jeanette, played by Carey Mulligan, and they are the parents of 14 year old Joe, played by Ed Oxenbould.
We, along with Joe watch the marriage fall apart, seeing, and hearing, things a teenage boy shouldn't have to understand at that age. The family lives in Grand Falls, Montana, with Jerry having lost his job and, in desperation, not understanding where he belongs in his life, runs off to fight fires for a dollar an hour.
It's 1960 and Jeanette, after years of feeling dissatisfied, finds herself lost and acts out in ways that are harmful to her son though through his passivity it is almost as if he is a reporter telling a story about people he doesn't know and the three, including him, don't know who they or each are.
Douglas Sirk, a very successful director from the 1950s and 1960s would have made a very dramatic, 4 hankie picture out of this story but the director here, Paul Dano, just tells the story that he and Zoe Kazan wrote letting the actors do their job.
Gyllenhaal does such a good job that when he is off screen, for most of the center of the film, you feel his presence. Carey Mulligan has all the 'showy' scenes and is getting a lot of raves but to me she is more bipolar than a woman going through a crisis which I think may be the reason this film doesn't work for me.
Ed Oxenbould's 14 year old, in his silence and facial expressions, really is the glue that holds this film together especially when he realizes that his parents are human beings and have faults.
"Wildlife", with some beautiful mountain scenery, is an okay picture though nothing special.
situations and is all the better for its restraint and sensitivity. Carey Mulligan is outstanding, the screenplay and directing subtle and the movie resonates with period feel.
"It sure is a wildlife, isn't it son?" screams Joe's father.
"Don't ask him, he doesn't know," Joe's mother replies.
This is just one of many things Joe's mother gets wrong in "Wildlife," the latest "suburban family dysfunction" drama in which the only character who sees things clearly and rationally is a 14-year-old boy. Contrary to what his mother says, Joe absolutely knows how "wild" and chaotic life can be, because at his tender, formative age, he's suddenly been forced into a role he wasn't expecting, one that requires him to not only act as "man of the house" and perform traditional duties like earning an income and making dinner, but to prevent his parents from essentially destroying themselves. This all happens as Joe begins to learn, at an alarmingly fast rate, that his parents are not only not perfect, but that their once idyllic marriage is perhaps no longer so.
There have, of course, been several movies about the downfall of the nuclear family living in a small American town ("Ordinary People," "American Beauty," "Revolutionary Road"), but "Wildlife," thanks to its subtle storytelling and strong performances, manages to find its own place among the crowd. Directed by Paul Dano and written by Dano and Zoe Kazan, based on Richard Ford's novel, it's a somber, reflective film about sad people who often delude themselves in order to thwart anger and loneliness, yet who also discover and rediscover their self-worth. It's also about how personal insecurity, inner soul-searching and coming-of-age are constants in life and don't end just because you reach a certain age.
I know, I've thrown a lot of heavy themes at you, but in spite of its serious motifs, "Wildlife" is surprisingly humble, which, in hindsight, probably plays into the overall message Dano wanted to convey: that even in remote, seemingly uneventful places like Great Falls, Montana, at the dawn of the 1960s, life can be crazy and unpredictable, and there's always a lot more going on around us that we don't know about than what we do.
Dano expresses this message unassumingly, with quiet yet passionate confidence, and through the simple observation of his characters, whom he allows the freedom to behave on-screen rather than act. Joe (Ed Oxenbould) is at the center of the story. He's 14, shy, not especially athletic, and socially withdrawn. He's at that awkward age where his voice is about to change and acne will soon break out all over his face. In a year or so, he'll probably shoot up a foot.
Until then, though, Joe must endure being short and admit hard truths to himself, like the fact he doesn't even like football, which he hesitates to tell his father, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal). Jerry, a wannabe golf pro, has recently moved his wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and Joe to Great Falls, Montana because he got a job as a golf instructor at the local country club. But it's evident such a move, like others in the past, was impulsive because Jerry was so desperate to find work and provide for his family, but we soon learn his hastiness and pride often get the better of him.
When Jerry is fired from the club for taking bets with the club members ("I got fired for being nice"), the family suddenly finds itself struggling to make ends meet. Jeanette, once a teacher herself, suggests she go back to work, but the mere thought makes Jerry cringe and creates unexpressed anger and resentment. But because he refuses to work menial jobs like bagging groceries, Jeanette has no choice and becomes a swim instructor at the local YMCA.
Jerry, meanwhile, takes to sleeping in his car during the day and staring off into space at night, using cigarettes and alcohol as vices for his remorse and stress. Joe, wise beyond his years, also notices his father sleeping on the couch and realizes the strain between his parents goes beyond money and jobs. He's not exactly sure what else is at play, and perhaps no one is, which makes it all the more frustrating, but hence life often being inexplicable.
Eventually, Jerry signs up to be a firefighter, knowing full well he'll be sent to the state's surrounding mountains to contain the wildfires, a move that not only puzzles but infuriates Jeanette ("Why would you want to work a job where you'll probably get killed?!"). She knows this is just Jerry's way of leaving and perhaps neglecting his familial responsibilities.
But Jerry leaves anyway, while Joe has taken a job with the local photographer. And with his father gone, Joe becomes a first-person witness to the undoing of his parents' marriage as Jeanette begins to reclaim her youth, dressing less like a mother and housewife, drinking more, and entertaining overbearing men like the lascivious Warren Miller (Bill Camp).
What Joe sees and what events transpire, I'll not reveal, but the value of "Wildlife" is in its patience, and in its slow yet steady examination of the characters as they grasp and react to their changing worlds, which have shifted without warning. As a first-time director, Dano not only displays great control over his story but also exhibits tremendous restraint by not allowing it to succumb to forced or over-the-top melodrama. It must have been tempting for him and the cast to want to heighten the intensity of the characters' emotions and simply let things spiral control because it would have been more sensational and "entertaining," but that would have been too easy. Instead, they choose a more honest and understated route, and the result is a film that resonates and reminds us that when it comes to life's unexpected wrenches, there's no set, narrative way with which we're supposed to deal with them. There's also no guarantee of how they'll turn out. The best we can do, just as Joe does, is stay focused, keep a level head, and do what we have to do to survive, all of which are harder to do the older we get.