Wildlife has all the hallmarks of a first film. It has few settings, and even fewer characters. In adapting a Richard Ford novel, director Paul Dano and co-screenwriter Zoe Kazan unearth familiar ennui from the middle of the twentieth century. Their adult characters are not that much older than their POV character, a teenage boy who barely understands what his parents are going through. What makes the film worthwhile is how the limited point of views interacts with the film’s subtext. Dano and Kazan realize that the adult actors need to express a great deal so we can see the family cracking at the seams, and thankfully they are sensitive and controlled enough to pull it off.
Great Falls, Montana, seems like a ghost town in 1960, so one can only wonder what it must be like now. Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) moves his wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and their teenage boy Joe (Ed Oxenbould) so he can start a job as a golf pro. Before we can even get comfortable with this family dynamic, Jerry loses his job (his boss catches him betting with his country club clients). This a period when stoicism was considered a virtue, so Jerry becomes withdrawn and sullen.
He does not look for new work, and one day Joe finds him sleeping on the couch. Things only get worse from there: Jerry finds a job as a low-level firefighter, a position that is high risk with low reward. He leaves the home for interminable period, and Jeannette lashes out. She starts speaking her mind, she drinks more, and soon she has a new friend named Warren (Bill Camp). Joe tries to keep it all together, and soon he runs the risk of developing the same resentments as his parents.
The economic strain of this family serves as an early break in the American Dream. Many early scenes hinge on the assumption that Jerry – a good-looking man with an eager demeanor – can find a job and support his family however he wants. In a scene in smoldering anger, Joe learns that possibility is not so simple: the golf club offers Jerry his job back, but he refuses out of wounded pride.
The script offers few opportunities for any character to explain themselves, so instead Gyllenhaal focuses down on the subtle tics that reveal a great deal. It is an intense performance from an actor known for intense performances: if Jerry ever met Gyllenhaal’s character from Brokeback Mountain, I doubt they could muster any words beyond a simple “Howdy.” Still, Jerry is not merely a riff on the classic Gyllenhaal performance, since he also hits believable notes of indignity, outrage, and humiliation. Jerry is absent for a large chunk of the movie, but this absence is acutely felt.
Wildlife succeeds on the pained chemistry between Mulligan and Oxenbould. Jerry never tells Joe he is “the man of the house,” and yet Joe find himself thrust into a role of responsibility he is ill-equipped to handle. There are many shots of Joe watching his mother, and Dano effectively recreates the most common tension from adolescence: there is a painful moment where you finally realize your parents don’t have the answers, either.
Mulligan is unapologetic, even defiant, in a terrific performance that probably will not earn the recognition it deserves. Joe may never understand that he is a walking representation of Jeanette’s failed potential, but there are enough asides and drunken confessions so we understand her. In a curious scene, Jeanette reveals her age to Joe: she is 34, which means she had her child while she was still in college. This creates another, galvanizing layer to the drama. Gender roles were cruel in this period, and while they have improved in key ways, there were (and still are) countless Jeanettes out there who crave a future they will never have.
Dano has unassuming, assured style that is right for this material. The palette is an ashy green, and the oppressive grey skies offer little solace for anyone. Parts of Wildlife feel timeless, and absent a few flourishes of profanity, the film would have resonance to a 1960 audience. There are a few missteps, like an easy coda that finds an unearned peace between its lead characters. While the arc with Warren is well-acted, the script gives Mulligan and Camp no favors (movies should retire the phrase “mommy’s new friend”). Still, Wildlife is mostly a confident, melancholy drama that uses sharp observation to make larger points about the endless fissures in American family life.