Paul Dano’s directorial debut follows a family patriarch who extinguishes fires in the Montana mountains as his son attempts to put out fires at home.
“Wildlife” delivers a compelling mix of whimsy and drama in a film not characterized by a swift-moving plot, but rather the measured and careful development of its characters. Dano, who has starred in films such as “Little Miss Sunshine,” creates a lush adaptation of Richard Ford’s novel of the same name, despite the film’s tundra-like, winter setting. And contrary to its title, the film cultivates its most memorable moments within the domestic confines of a seemingly well-kept home.
The film dapples the already-quaint setting of 1960s Montana with droll details, like a family with an affinity for names that start with “J.” Parents Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) live an almost nomadic lifestyle, carting their son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) around wherever Jerry finds a job. In Montana, he works as a golf instructor before being fired and instead deciding to fight fires for a dollar an hour.
Jerry notifies his family shortly after he’s surreptitiously made his decision, and promises to be back at the first sign of snow. Jeanette, clearly distraught, believes it falls on her shoulders to support her family, and steeled both by anger and this newfound responsibility, enters into an affair with the town’s wealthy car dealer Mr. Miller (Bill Camp).
Mulligan delivers the most alluring and unexpected performance in the film – she becomes the eye of the storm as an attentive mother and wife who quickly unwinds when her husband leaves. The actress carries around Jeanette’s pent-up anger, releasing it in fragments that build up to a sorrowful picture of a broken family. Her husband plays a role in this picture, of course, and though Gyllenhaal occupies little screen time, his performance as the prideful breadwinner is impactful enough to make his absence noticeable throughout the film.
Jeanette’s most seductive moments occur when small inconsistencies – frantic eyes paired with a terse smile, wearing sneakers with hair still in rollers – betray her dutifully maintained composure, making it apparent that Jerry leaving was just a symptom of an already problematic marriage.
For a dinner at Mr. Miller’s house, her character wears a lurid combination of a chartreuse, backless gown and red lip paint. When she insists on playing some lively music to dance to, the request feels hollow and sad, and her repeated cries of “Cha cha cha!” as she sways fall on Joe’s uncomfortable ears.
Oxenbould plays the character of an unwilling observer well, channeling the viewer’s reluctant suspicions. Joe comes across as quiet, but not meek. He’s a 14-year-old boy trying to hold his family together while navigating a new school and holding down a job at the local photography studio. While the character has the potential to exhibit a hasty rage toward his mother, Oxenbould evokes more of a worried concern than anger, opening up his already vulnerable character to more disappointment when he confirms the affair for himself.
The setting serves as an extension of the characters – almost a character in itself. At once, it’s both serene and volatile, much like Mulligan’s Jeanette. Nature often serves to emphasize the character’s emotions, such as in one scene, in which Jeanette encourages Joe to skip school so she can take him on a trip to the mountains. On the way up, the camera follows their car through grassy, rolling hills, but when they near their destination, her intentions become clear.
She pulls up to the site of a blazing fire, essentially showing Joe what his father left them for. Her voice, when she speaks to her son, is terse and level, devoid of any hysteria but still delivering a slow-burning, penetrating fury.
Small moments focused on dialogue between just two people at a time – Joe and Jeanette eating in a diner, Joe and Jerry sitting in a car – form some of the most compelling moments in the film. Using the fewest number of players possible in one of the sparsest locations in the country, Dano presents a myopic view of family dynamics. The characters and settings he does utilize, however, bring a swelling power to the screen that makes ordinary life seem ruthless and wild.