Directed by Paul Dano
Wildlife is a tense, bleak family drama set in the early 1960s, kind of like Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road (2008). Both films deal with young married couples who are no longer happy and don’t know why. Presumably they were sold a false bill of goods about the American Dream, particularly in postwar America, where having a house, a car and a spouse was meant to be enough.
Early on in the film Jeanette Brinson (Carey Mulligan) explains that she purposefully doesn’t have a job so that she can stay at home to raise her son… who is fourteen years old. Her husband, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) is laid off less than ten minutes into the film and too proud to go back when his boss changes his mind. His struggle to find, or even look for, a job means that Jeanette and son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) will enter the workforce for themselves, each finding a certain amount of meaning in their work beyond just making money.
The Brinsons live in Montana, specifically in a valley that’s in the shadow of near permanent forest fires, at least according to the tone of the film. Desperate for money and his ego too big to let him work at the grocery store, Jerry decides to ship out for a few weeks or months to help fight the fires. His departure, to be sure, says more about abandoning his family, and it creates a sudden hole in what was always a precarious Brinson balance.
Jeanette resents her husband for leaving, though it’s clear there was discontent brewing for sometime. She will wear her depression on her sleeve, often putting Joe in more than a few uncomfortable circumstances. The boy whom she told herself was young enough to require her to stay at home is now a boy she deems old enough to listen to her intimacy problems and explicit despair.
He will become little more than a roommate as she courts an older widower in town named Warren Miller (Bill Camp). Joe carries on in his own way, but Jeanette will for a time only use him as a sounding board for her own vanity and discontent. She drags him along for an equally riveting and uncomfortable dinner at Warren’s home.
Things come to a head as Jeanette’s and Warren’s affair begins to blossom. It happens at first in plain sight, with Warren making a move on the melancholic woman right there in front of her son. Later Joe will hear and see them walking about plainly at their own home. What they’re doing is hardly sneaking around because neither of them seems to care if they get “caught.”
This is certainly the saddest part of the film. Jeanette’s and Jerry’s despair, both shared or otherwise, is plain from the start, but they at least treat their son like he’s their son. He looks younger than his years, like he’s straight out of Leave it to Beaver, and his silent observation makes him feel wise beyond his years. Still, he clings to what quickly seems an outdated idea of his parents as a single unit, and he will watch them pull apart throughout the film.
When Jeanette asks him if he likes a particularly sultry dress, Joe says, “dad would love it.” Everything he says comes back to his father, understandably, but it’s as if the minute Jerry is gone, Jeanette no longer puts up the facade. Her way of dealing with her own grief and dissatisfaction is to quickly put it behind her and move on.
Jerry isn’t any better. He will re-enter the story, of course, and he will learn about his wife’s affair, of course, and in these scenes he no longer treats Joe as his son but as just another drinking buddy (not that we see any of Jerry’s buddies, he doesn’t have any).
Everything leads to a clash in which Jerry tries to set Warren’s house on fire, and Joe runs away. He will return home to find his parents sitting there waiting for him. In their concern they are momentarily united, but an epilogue shows that it won’t last for long.
In Wildlife two young adults play catch up with themselves. On the surface they are playing the game, developing in society, but inside they are barely more than teenagers. They find a role to play, both with each other and with themselves, but there is little meaning behind these self-assigned titles.
Everything they’ve been told, it seems, is a lie, and only now are they learning this. In the film’s epilogue we get a sense that they have finally found themselves and are happier for it, but there’s young Joe, still trying to mend the fences and bring them all together. It’s a lost cause only he doesn’t know it yet.
So I guess the film is about two adults finding themselves later in life and a boy forced to learn what he’s made of early on. Joe is the most mature of the three, but he’s dealing with what life has given him and in that dynamic there is surely a certain, even if reluctant, acceptance that some things aren’t in your control. I think there’s peace in that once it’s reckoned with, but for Jeanette and Jerry they have to understand that they’ve chosen this life which has made them so miserable.
The film is beautifully shot, and the location is serene and beautiful, even if the drama within is so tense and at times agonizing.
Up Next: Ride in the Whirlwind (1966), Total Recall (1990), Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)