Film Review – Wildlife
Wildlife is a relationship drama helmed by first-time director Paul Dano known for his work in front of the camera. The film is also written by Paul Dano, his first screenplay, and Zoe Kazan, her second screenplay after Ruby Sparks. The film is based on the novel by Richard Ford.
Set in the 1960s, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Jeanette Brinson (Carey Mulligan) have newly settled in a small town in Montana with their 14-year-old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould). Jerry is a golf pro at the local golf course, and Jeanette is a housewife. Being new in town and unsure of their new lives, Jerry throws a wrench in their plans by being let go from the golf course due to being too friendly with the members and wagering on games with them. Ever the prideful man, Jerry starts to drink and disappears when he has let down his family. Jeanette sees him as unpredictable and not willing to do what is best for her and her son. To make matters worse, Jerry decides to help fight the wildfires raging in the area for very little pay and does so without discussing it with Jeanette. Joe is just a spectator to his parents’ marriage hitting a turbulent rough patch. With his father leaving the picture, Jeanette is left to take care of their son and make ends meet in Jerry’s absence, while Joe tries to become the man of the house.
While films about a relationship disintegrating are not uncommon, Wildlife adds the viewpoint of a young teenager awakening to the problems of an adult relationship. Joe is played by Oxenbould as a cautious teen, finding his way in a new school and trying to make friends. His father throws a crux in his seemingly happy-go-lucky life by abandoning his family for a job that doesn’t make sense. Joe gives hints that his parents’ marriage has not always been perfect, and considering how old Joe is when his parents met, and being an only child; he may be aware of the problems in his family opposed to other examples around them. Joe has to grow up quickly, get a second job, and look out for his mother who is not making the best decisions. Joe is tentative in his actions and doesn’t have a lot of say; he is more of an observer, taking in his surroundings. There are long takes where the camera stays on Oxenbould’s face, revealing this hesitant, quiet kid who is unsure of seemingly everything. It is Joe’s small talk and questions that may be a precursor to both his mother and father making bad decisions.
Insecurity is the theme that runs through Wildlife. Jerry cannot provide for his family the way society deems he should. Jeanette cannot be the perfect housewife and then cannot provide for her son after her husband leaves. It is this insecurity that has them both running from their current lives in different ways, both affecting their son.
Wildlife focuses more on Jeanette than Jerry, and what she does as a mother is ten times worse than what Jerry did, leaving his family. Under the guise of providing for Joe, Jeanette takes on work, and while it initially seems beneficial, Jeanette loses her confidence and finds it in other ways. She pursues a relationship with one of the men she instructed in swimming, Warner Miller (Bill Camp). She is bold enough to take Joe to dinner with her at Miller’s house. Is she trying to show off to Joe that she has other options or is she using Joe to stop her from going too far? Joe is perfectly aghast at what his mother is doing, but he stays polite to Miller while in his home. There are signs that she has taken their relationship to the next level, and Joe makes a point of telling his father as much to the detriment of all involved.
Paul Dano has created a compelling examination of the nuclear family in the 1960s and the consequences when it falls apart. Not every person is cut out to be the breadwinner, provider, or the housewife cleaning, cooking, and raising the children. When one person does the unexpected, it throws the family dynamic into turmoil. With Joe being the audience’s eye into the relationship, the layers of Jerry and Jeanette are peeled back, and their insecurities are laid bare. Neither seems to care much for the consequences on their son. Wildlife is not a joyous film, but it is a character study of broken relationships, and Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan, and Ed Oxenbould make a terrific trio of actors that make the deterioration complex, fascinating and reveal unexpected character flaws.