Serving as Paul Dano’s directorial debut, which he co-writes alongside Zoe Kazan with a script based on the book by Richard Ford, Wildlife is an intimate portrait of what is seemingly a happy domestic life torn apart by circumstance. It’s an exploration of the destruction of the nuclear family through the eyes of a teenager whose wholesome views and ideas of his parents’ marriage deteriorates as things begin to slowly fall apart.
The events of the story unfold through the eyes of 14-year-old Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould). He and his family–mom, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), and dad, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal)–have moved several times before finally settling in Montana. After his dad is fired from his job at the golf course and Jerry refuses to go back even after they admit to making a mistake, Jeanette and Joe pick up the financial slack. Without any notice, Jerry announces he’s going to fight the wildfires, meaning he’ll have to leave his family for an unknown amount of time. Jeanette is furious with him and after his departure, she continues working and gets to know Warren Miller (Bill Camp), an older student in one of her swimming classes. Meanwhile, Joe is deeply affected by all of the events transpiring in his life. He misses days of school, can’t concentrate enough to study, and is shocked by every decision his parents make, all while he remains a quiet bystander to the destruction of the family he’d known.
Carey Mulligan is superb in her role as a devoted wife, later a scorned wife, and a woman who’s on a mission to detach herself from the life she realizes she no longer wants to lead. She takes charge in so many ways, even though the going is rough at first. Mulligan embodies her character and though she has no proper outlet to vent her frustrations besides acting out, we clearly see her emotions. In little moments of vulnerability, we’re witness to how lost, but determined, she is and it’s in these moments of pause and silence that Mulligan captures Jeanette’s heartache, bitterness, and spirit so fully.
Jake Gyllenhaal doesn’t have as much time onscreen, but what with the time he does have, he uses wisely to portray a man who has a lot of pride and makes impulsive decisions without consulting his family. Gyllenhaal’s Jerry is always three seconds away from snapping under the pressure of maintaining a job and doing something he isn’t looked down upon. He doesn’t respect his wife as much as he thinks he does and, while there’s still some love there, it isn’t as strong as perhaps either of them had hoped.
Wildlife explores the domestic drama in a quiet and calm way, leaving room for understanding and for the emotions to bubble up to the surface before the characters make sometimes reckless and questionable decisions. Joe is a bystander to his own life and Ed Oxenbould provides glimpses into his character’s feelings without much dialogue, all while his life goes on a roller coaster ride. Paul Dano directs with determination and captures the normalcy, and the destruction of, the family unit in the 1960s in an intricate way that takes on its many complexities through youthful eyes.
The film’s drama unravels at a decent pace, though there are moments that linger for too long. The examination of domesticity in an era when the nuclear family itself is beginning to come undone is quite a task, but Dano is able to weave the story and bring it all together. The film isn’t concerned with what third parties might say about the family’s problems, nor is it interested in examining how that affects them. All that matters is what’s happening within and in this regard, Wildlife excels as an intimate and personal snapshot of family, wrapped in its own bubble of angst and despair.
Wildlife is an exploration of the destruction of the nuclear family through the eyes of a teenager whose wholesome views and ideas of his parents’ marriage deteriorates as things begin to slowly fall apart.