This is a sublime little film — an elegantly cross-stitched portrait of an all-American family fracturing under the weight of broken dreams and false promises.
Wildlife, directed by Paul Dano. Screening at the Kendall Square Cinema, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and AMC Loews Boston Common.
By Isaac Feldberg
In a year admittedly flush with high-profile actors stepping in front of the camera — from John Krasinski’s clever creature feature A Quiet Place and Bradley Cooper’s electric Star Is Born remake to comparatively low-key efforts from Jonah Hill (slice-of-life comedy mid90s) and Ethan Hawke (bourbon-drenched biopic Blaze) — it would nonetheless be a mistake to overlook Wildlife, a quietly accomplished and profoundly devastating directorial debut from character actor Paul Dano.
This sublime little film — an elegantly cross-stitched portrait of an all-American family fracturing under the weight of broken dreams and false promises, the Greatest Generation falling painfully short of socially vaulted ambitions — is a great many things at once without ever seeming overstuffed. It is a serene evocation of place, a time-capsule recreation handled tenderly, and with considerable intelligence. For Dano, it is a fearsome calling card, the preternaturally sure-handed work of a born filmmaker with a distinct visual flair and meticulous narrative ambition. It is an actors’ film, a tremendous showcase for its stars, two (make that three) performers of uncommon physicality and dramatic precision. But it is about none of them so much as it is about the whole lot caught in collision, the tensions that flare and snap between consenting adults behind closed doors, viewed through the horrified eyes of the one innocent left in the equation.
Carey Mulligan gets the showier and more central role as Jeanette Brinson, mother to the film’s 14-year-old point-of-view protagonist, Joe (that aforementioned innocent, played superbly by Ed Oxenbould). She’s married to Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), a shoulder-chipped dreamer who has just recently moved his family into the small town of Great Falls, Montana, where they rent a small brick house and he works on a local golf course.
We get the sense that this is far from the Brinsons’ first move; when Jerry’s fired from his golfing job early on (his boss accuses him, not wrongly, of excessively sycophantic conduct around clientele), his immediate response to the affront is to mount a morose retreat. At first, this means withdrawing into himself; Jerry languishes around the house, drinking a few beers too many, staring into space with a look of dulled, self-pitying anger. The boss calls to offer him his job back. “I won’t work for people like that,” comes Jerry’s obstinate reply. But there’s another kind of retreat going on inside Jerry, a desperate refusal to look at his regular unemployment with the same critical eye he casts so readily upon others. “I’m too well-liked,” he tells Joe at one point, leaning against the steering wheel, his voice too insistent to be convincing. “That’s my problem.” It’s no wonder when Joe asks Jeanette, “Are we going to have to move again?”
The thing is, there’s not much beyond Great Falls; picking flight over fight every time, Jerry has already shifted his family across the continental United States, from east to west. Now they are at the outskirts of the wilderness. Based on a novel by Richard Ford, Wildlife, in both setting and tone, is suffused with a solemn foreboding; smoke rises above the picturesque mountains to the north, a sign of forest fires raging away out of sight, burning closer each day to Great Falls. In an early scene, Joe listens cautiously as a teacher tells his class what to do in such event that the fires reach the town. A classmate tells him he needn’t fret. If the fires reach them, it’ll be too late to do much of anything about it anyway.
As Jerry idles away his days, Jeanette at first seems poised to stoically take the wheel, offering assurances to Joe and finding work as a swimming teacher at the local YMCA, in order to bring in some money until Jerry can get back on track. She’s eager to get out of the house and less stubborn than her husband; and for a time, it seems that this new domestic order will work, if only just. But when Jerry — perhaps desperate to test his mettle as a man, maybe fleeing the gazes of the wife and child he’s failed to provide for — signs up to go fight a wildfire in the nearby Rockies for a dollar an hour, Jeanette’s resolve falters, and with it her faith in the role she’s been long-conditioned to play.
With Jerry gone, she decides to encourage the advances of a swimming pupil, Warren Miller (Bill Camp), an older and heavyset car salesman whose status as a wealthy divorcée obfuscates the creep factor of how aggressively he courts Jeanette — often right in front of Joe. When the two go to Miller’s house for dinner, it’s chilling how shamelessly he posits himself as the new head of their table, lecturing Jeanette about economics and offering to take Joe up in his airplane.
But Jeanette permits the intrusion, in a sense pleads for it. She shows up to the dinner in a backless cocktail dress and — in a sequence that stuns and horrifies entirely on the strength of Mulligan’s fearless performance — dances the “cha-cha-cha” across the living room, watching Miller leer and delightedly suck on his cigar. Joe, meanwhile, has the frozen-over stare of a little kid who’s just been told his folks are splitting up, as well in a sense he has been. Miller is a predator, no doubt, but he’s not an exclusively detestable figure, a fact owing to the measure of compassion he seems to genuinely feel for Joe and Jeanette. He’s taking advantage of her (and surely traumatizing Joe), but to him this is simply an act of education.
If Jeanette does little to hide the burgeoning affair from her son, it’s both because she must make him see just how desperate their situation has become, and because we are to understand that her shame is kept at bay by the transgression’s innate pragmatism. In her mind, she’s doing what she must to ensure they don’t go broke, to keep a roof over Joe’s head in the event Jerry doesn’t come back, or that he does and the cycle begins anew. “If you’ve got a better plan for me, tell me,” she urges her son. “I don’t have one.” But at once, she’s doing what she must for herself, this unfamiliar and exquisite woman she’s only just in the act of discovering.
The year is 1960, three years before Betty Friedan was to publish The Feminine Mystique and six before the formation of the National Organization for Women. It was the eve of the feminist awakening, the start of the decade in which the “nuclear family,” that antiquated and patriarchal notion, would fissure under the force of radically shifting gender norms. And Jeanette, with reckless abandon, is embracing the wants and needs she’s long kept repressed. She is a smarting, self-immolating, sensuous embodiment of the promise of that time period — and its unknowability.
Jeanette fell pregnant with Joe at just 18; Wildlife doesn’t make mention of Enovid, newly approved that year, but one wonders what emotions would flit through Jeanette’s head at the thought of what freedoms the pill might signify. What’s unleashed in Jerry’s absence is a woman willing to take what she wants for herself; the brilliance of Mulligan’s performance lies in how conflicted she is about this change, and how much more sudden and destructive her actions are because of that lingering reticence.
There’s a hair-raisingly excellent scene where Jeanette drives her son to the edge of the wildfire, imploring him to stand before it and really look at the wall of flame, trees and brush succumbing as it spreads steadily forward. He flinches from it; from the car, she watches, keenly.
The trees left upright after the inferno, Jeanette says, are called the “standing dead,” ashen and hollow, suspended in time, never again to grow a leaf or bury a root. She does not wish to join them; it is possible she believes her husband already has, scorched too many times by the incompatibility of his big dreams with smaller realities. Maybe what’s left of their marriage is ashes, too.
But there’s something to the way that fire rages, to the undiluted heat of its glow, how it takes what it needs to sustain itself without hesitation, let alone apology; and it’s not for nothing that this film’s third act is punctuated by an act of violence involving gasoline, matches, and a long-broken household’s front porch steps. Some species of pine across the Midwest require heat for their seeds to germinate; in the wake of wildfires, they sprout up through the debris, replacing what forest had been there before. The wilderness always returns; it just wears a different face. So it is with Wildlife, a film ultimately about nature, nurture, and the ways in which self-actualization can necessitate destruction, and not only of the self.
“I feel like I need to wake up, but I don’t know what from or to,” Jeanette muses to Joe in the early hours after Jerry’s flight into the wilderness. All dreams require some element of faith, the idea that even far-flung potentials can be possible, achievable. Later, when Jerry returns to face the new reality he’s helped ensure, he tells Joe, “She just needs something to believe in again.” They’re both right, and dramatizing those contradictions are part of what makes Wildlife such a beguiling, thought-provoking work of beauty.
Isaac Feldberg is an entertainment journalist currently based in Boston. Though often preoccupied by his on-going quest to prove that Baby Driver is a Drive prequel, he always finds time to appreciate the finer things in life, like Liam Neeson.