Don’t be fooled by the pastel-soft hues and muted tones present in Paul Dano’s vision of 1960s Montana. Wildlife is not a sweet dewy-eyed paean to small town life and dysfunctional families overcoming adversity together. In fact, it is quite the opposite – it is a relentlessly depressing tale of two spectacularly flawed individuals muddling through life and marriage, and the child caught between them who is old enough to understand that his life is slowly careening out of control, but powerless to stop it.
These flawed individuals are Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), a working-class couple struggling to make ends meet at the foot of the Montana hills, while their obedient, perceptive son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) attends school and helps his parents out whenever he can. Jerry is a washed-out former golf professional who now works as a lowly caddy at the nearby course, while Jeanette serves as his doting housewife and Joe’s loving mother. All this, of course, falls apart as soon as Jerry loses his job and immediately spirals into a mid-life crisis, leaving his family to fight Montana’s raging forest fires for the pithy pay of a dollar per hour. Shortly after her husband all but throws himself bodily off the cliff edge of his own existential angst, Jeanette also becomes a woman on the edge; struggling to choose between what is right, what is easy, and whether to prioritise her own happiness over her now-rudderless family.
Joe, a ten-year-old precocious enough to know the consequences of his parents’ actions, but not old enough to steer them back to the beaten path, is forced to watch all this unfold like a tragic hero watching his city sacked and burned from a distance. His suspension between childhood and adolescence lends the character both a sense of wisdom beyond his years, and a clear understanding of all his parents’ errors as they come to light. But with it comes a heartbreaking powerlessness in the face of his parents’ declining marriage; the inability to do anything but ask cutting questions and perform small, caring gestures in the hopes that his mother and father will right their own courses on their own. Joe is a boy in flux who is alternately infantilised by his parents or left to fend for himself, and Oxenbould very successfully takes on such a daunting role with bright-eyed charm and empathy; aided by Dano’s strong direction and carefully-crafted script.
Mulligan and Gyllenhaal too deserve high praise of their own. Mulligan is an excellent Jeanette; clearly crumbling inside while fighting to maintain that saccharine-sweet demeanour expected of housewives in the 60s. Even as she all but loses the remaining shreds of her dignity – partly because of her husband’s desertion, and partly due to her own acts – Mulligan carries her character with poise and grace through thick and thin; even when audience empathy for her may dwindle to a low. As for Gyllenhaal, while he may not have much screen time, he certainly makes an impact whenever he does appear, and Dano’s writing gives viewers enough of him to see him topple from his pedestal in both Joe and Jeanette’s eyes; no longer a doting father or steadfast husband but an absent afterthought.
Wildlife does not tell a new story, but the film instead serves as proof that an old dog can indeed learn some new tricks. Giving its time-worn dysfunctional-family narrative new life are the uniquely personal flaws that Jeanette and Jerry both wield like weapons with which to sabotage their own lives beyond repair – Jeanette is deceptively impulsive and surprisingly vengeful; Jerry is, by contrast, a coward who cannot face any of his problems head on. Another novelty in this small-town story is Joe’s perceptiveness, which adds an extra sheen of poignancy to the film’s double-edged emotional sword. All this is captured brilliantly through cinematographer Diego Garcia’s lens; his wide shots showing us the beauty of the Montanan magic hour, and his devastating close-ups giving us unfailingly moving displays of emotion brimming to the surface.
Mind, the film is not perfect – Dano’s pacing could use improvement, and other details of Joe’s life seem too hastily brushed over in favour of gratuitous emotional hand-wringing at times. However, Wildlife’s numerous moments of brilliance certainly outshine these blips by far. It may not be a film you’ll never forget, but its characters and their tribulations certainly will stay with you, long after the final flash of Joe’s camera has faded into black.
Image: Sundance Institute