Wildlife is a detailed capture of the dissolution of a marriage, from the point of view of the couple’s only child. It is also a coming-of-age story as 14 year-old Joe comes to realize the elusiveness of permanence in his parents Jerry and Jeanette’s once loving relationship. If all these names sound too common, that just might be one implication of the film – a specific look into a general human condition.
The film adaptation of Richard Ford’s novel is a selection in the Special Presentations program at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival, screened as a Canadian premiere. It is the directorial debut of actor Paul Dano, co-writing the screenplay with Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick, 2017).
To those unfamiliar with Dano, maybe these titles will help you locate where he’s coming from and appreciate the variety of works he’s been in. Remember Little Miss Sunshine (2006)? He’s Olive’s older brother Dwayne who reluctantly gets into the yellow VW Beetle van and takes a vow of silence, or the dubious preacher confronting Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood (2007), as the harsh slave driver in 12 Years a Slave (2013), or in the 2016 TV mini-series War & Peace as Pierre. Not the handsome leading man but always the character actor.
The small family in Wildlife consists of Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal), a golf pro who has just moved into the town of Great Falls, Montana, with his wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and son Joe (Ed Oxenbould). Just as they thought they’re settling in Jerry is fired from his job as a golf instructor in a country club. After waiting for a while for her husband to absorb the loss of job and pride but with no solution in sight to the household finance, Jeannette decides to come out of the home to look for work, ultimately finding a position as a swimming instructor at the Y.
That just may not be the cause of the conflict. What begins the total meltdown is when Jerry, out of the blue, packs up and follows a group of men heading to the forests to fight a wild fire fiercely raging near Great Falls, not knowing when he will return or if he can get out of it unscathed. Feeling utterly alone and abandoned, Jeanette begins to react to her precarious situation by venting with some out-of-character behavior. The successful businessman Warren Miller (Bill Camp), Jeannette’s swim student at the Y, just happens to be a convenient escape route. All these familial changes and development are observed uncensored by their sensitive teenaged son Joe.
From this his first attempt at directing, viewers would be gratified to find Dano to be an actor’s director; especially with the excellent cast he has under his helm, this is doubly rewarding. Dano lets the camera rest on the close-up faces of his characters to elicit superb performance, taking his time to capture the nuances in restraints, outburst, or just about any sort of inner feelings to surface.
This is one of the best, if not the best, performance I’ve seen Carey Mulligan in, changing from the loving wife and devoted mother to the angry and desperate single mom with a son to raise, to totally losing it, testing the boundaries of norms and behavior, and finally to the determined woman striking out on her own yet still bound by unseverable, familial ties. Mulligan deserves an Oscar nom for her role as Jeannette.
Watching his mother get close to Miller, Joe is torn between devotion and incredulity. Although a successful businessman, Miller is a limping, older man. Joe is utterly perturbed by his mother’s capricious turn. Dano creates some poignant scenes depicting the interactions between mother and son during dad’s absence from home. Often the passive observer, Joe is restrained with countless questions he cannot express in words.
Mulligan gets all the juicy lines. After Jerry is gone to fight the wild fire, Jeanette brings Joe along to Miller’s house for dinner, putting on heavy make-up and dressing in a seductive night gown. She dances with the man intimately in front of her son. In another occasion, she dons cowgirl attire and admires herself in front of the mirror, reminiscing her younger days. Jeanette answers her son’s dazed expression with this line:
“It’s good to know your parents were once not your parents.”
There is a former life in every parent that even the closest child would not have known or understood. There are many thought-provoking lines in the film, but this one is particularly poignant.
Dano takes the liberty to follow the spirit of the text and creates a cinematic ending. His visual wrapping up is clear and spot-on, especially the scene at the studio where Joe works part-time. The final frame of the three sitting down together for a studio shot with Joe between his parents speaks volumes. A wild fire may have been put out, but the smouldering lingers; and the one keeping it under control may well have been a teenaged firefighter.
Update Nov. 16:
3 Nominations for “Wildlife” at the Film Independent Spirit Awards – Best First Feature, Best Female Lead, and Best Cinematography.