Wildlife - Review

Paul Dano’s excellent debut combines a fantastic visual aesthetic with a never better Carey Mulligan.


The hazards of middle class living and familial relationships compliment each other wonderfully in writing. Set in the 1960s, it’s also a visual match. This, Paul Dano’s directorial debut, combines a winning script with a modest visual eye to form one of the best character dramas of the year.

Wildlife is not the most experimental film you’ll see this year. It presents a modest collection of tools, and slowly assembles the film in front of you. Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) lead a troubled marriage, with frequent arguments and a tendency to leave issues unresolved. Their son, with the purposely bland name of Joe (Ed Oxenbould), is as blank of a canvas as you can get. Their drama is set up through innocent games of catch, tense dinners, and shattered by the arrival of a wildfire not far from the family’s Montana home. Jerry’s decision to leave to fight the fire after he has just been laid off shocks the family, Jeanette strangely content, Joe wondering why his father would leave. Jerry’s motivation is more or less a weak excuse, which explains Jeanette’s eagerness to move on with her life, temporarily unencumbered by her quarrelsome husband. Joe is too young to know any better, and as he always seen his parents together, the fracturing of the family affects him greatest. His job at a photo store helps paint over the time he has lost with his father, but there is still the time he must spend with his mother. Carey Mulligan is momentous in this film, playing a type of housewife we rarely see in entertainment. She is joyful, morose, and untethered all at once, often changing from scene to scene. Her expressive and weathered face keep the changes from feeling too drastic, while her hairstyle and clothing choices take more liberties. When going out on a pseudo date with a local car salesman she wears a revealing, bright green dress, and fixes her hair in a way Joe has never seen. His reaction to the sudden changes in his mother’s mood is about what I would have expected, silent and unquestioning. At his age, the idea of confronting your parents hasn’t even entered the mind. Even when he does, it’s in a way that lets him off the hook, like asking if she still loves his father. This is where Wildlife amazes the most, when it asks what wives should do when their husbands disappear for months, and what they must do.


Carey Mulligan admitted in an interview that the character she plays may be hard to watch for some, but that should only be true for those who believe women should be exclusively supportive of their husbands; she gives one of the best performances of the year. Jeanette loves her son, and does what she can to keep her family afloat, but doesn’t ignore the part of herself that requires attention, the kind that Joe is incapable of giving. The absence of her husband started long before he left, and the emotion inside of her has been building for so long that she releases it onto the first man who pays her any consideration. That man, Warren Miller (Bill Camp), is the stereotype affluent man who draws affection naturally, despite his age and appearance. At first, it’s hard to believe Jeanette could love someone so slimy, but as their paths continue to cross it becomes painfully clear what he offers her that is so enticing: presence. This is all viewed through Joe’s youthful lense, which tends to interpret simple meetings as sexually charged and possibly nefarious, although it isn’t until later in the film when things begin to lean that way. Jerry’s return is surprisingly quiet, which bothers Joe. He hasn’t seen his father in months, and his mother’s reaction to his return is anything but joyful. She admits immediately that she is seeing someone, and is moving to an apartment downtown, a shock to both men. Jerry sees this as aggression against him, when all Jeanette really wants is to be free of judgement. Joe’s vision of his parents’ love crumbles around him, but once again, his age keeps him from abandoning hope the way his parents do. The film’s ending tells a story in a picture, of a son who desperately wants a father and mother, if only because that is what he has been told to do, while the couple try to recount how they came so unstuck. It’s not a moment of reconciliation, rather, an inevitable consequence of two people who once loved each other growing apart. In the eyes of a son, it’s a heartbreaking story, told with a brisk pace and dynamic acting. The script and actors compliment each other, in the same way the time period and subject matter do. Jeanette drives Joe to the edge of the wildfire near the middle of the film, to show him what his father left them for. Joe climbs out of the car and stares into the mountain of flames closely nearing the family car, and for a moment it is only visible through the reflection in his eyes. The crumbling, ashen wildlife he is so familiar with is burning, for a reason he cannot explain, and in that moment he begins to understand what it is like to be his mother.