Wildlife ★★★★

2018 Ranked

Set in 1960 in rural Montana, Wildlife is an intimate look at a family. As a forest fire rages nearby that sends the animals scattering - with some of the young one getting confused and “burned up” - a family crumbles. Teenager Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould) is there to watch it first-hand. He sees his dad Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) fired and then go off to fight the fires. He sees his mom Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) start up an affair with a dealership owner. It is these events that will come to divide the Brinson family, leaving them scattered and running from the flames that seem to be engulfing them. While the snow may bring some peace by quenching the fire, the snow does not bring with it healing. In Paul Dano’s sublty and poignantly debut, he examines both the fire and the snow of this family, showing the speed at which it all falls apart and the near impossibility of putting those pieces back together.

It becomes apparent very quickly that Dano has found a mastery of framing and blocking. The final scenes of the film exemplify this with an exterior shot of the home as everybody can be seen moving about, as though they were in a fish bowl. Coming shortly thereafter, Joe takes his parents to get their picture taken as a family, leaving an empty chair in-between them very briefly before taking his spot in the middle. As his parents uncomfortably fidget in their seats and steal momentary glances of one another, it is he who will prove to be a connective thread between them, unfortunately underscoring their present plight and perhaps their future. Dano finds similar success throughout, purposefully and gorgeously framing the dramatic scenes, whether through doorways or windows where Joe gets a glimpse or with him right in the middle of the action. One of the most powerful images, however, comes as Jeanette and Joe drive out past the fire. Standing on the side of the road and staring up at the forest in flames, Joe seems overpowered by the image. The camera feeds off of this, practically in awe of the destruction and the odd beauty of it all, seemingly engulfing Joe right along with it. Using these images to mirror the feelings of the characters, of the distance growing between them, and of their lost or sputtering state, Dano is able to create great resonance without a word having to be uttered. So much is communicated through these frames that the story is often told through them, left for the camera or the blocking to emphasize these characters’ plight.

As an actor though, Dano never forgets about his cast. Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould, and Bill Camp, are all given considerable lee-way. The film never feels overly theatrical in its performances, rather feeding off of their very human and raw takes on these people. Their dialogue/delivery, their body language, and their reactions to the unfolding trauma of the family captures so much emotion that it is hard not to be moved. Even as Jeanette sputters and cheats on her husband, Mulligan’s empathetic and understanding performance brings the character so much depth. One can hear the longing in her voice as she talks about her youth, her flirtatious activities, or her advancing age. Mulligan’s immense skill shines through in this role, helping to realize this lost woman who is just looking for something. She has been stripped of so much - having become a stay-at-home mom in Montana until need has her working again - and her husband, who she put her faith in, has left her alone to fight fires for $1/hour instead of swallowing his pride and taking back his old job. It is a confusing time for her, isolated in a new town, and feeling as though time is running out for her to put it back together again. Mulligan’s ability to bring this out of Jeanette and capture her pain as she seeks comfort wherever she can find proves to be one of the most impressive elements of the performance.

She is matched by excellent turns from Gyllenhaal and Oxenbould. The former is a bit more impassioned than anyone else, staring down the shocking end of his marriage and dealing with his feelings of inadequacy/emasculation at every turn. As he sits next to his son and asks about what he saw between his mom and Mr. Miller (Bill Camp), the pain and anger in his voice hit hard. Though Jerry may be a bit flawed and is prone to fits of anger, Gyllenhaal’s capture that raw humanity within him. He is just as lost as Jeanette, trying to find out where he is supposed to be but having no idea where to turn. Add in the 1960s expectations on a man to be a provider and it only compounds his issues, something that Gyllenhaal expresses so well, especially in his pained and withdrawn body language. He just seems lost within his mind at times, trying to be who he needs to be but more content to hide out from the world in his car on the side of the road. Oxenbould is similarly impressive, capturing the bewilderment of a child who has seen far more than he should have, but also the slowly evolving nature of this young man.

One of the central ideas of Wildlife is about younger generations picking up where the older generations have fallen short. It is hinted at when Jeanette tells Joe about how Mr. Miller served in two wars without even knowing how to swim. To her, these events seem out of order. A boy learns how to swim and later on will partake in adult activities, such as war. However, the opposite proves to be true. Joe not only drives at age 14, but he shops, fixes the toilet, and cares for his mother while his dad is gone and while she seems uninterested in doing anything. He steps up and gets a job, ignoring his dad’s desire for him to focus on school and being a kid. He is not afforded much of a chance to be a kid, forced to grow up suddenly and take charge within his home. Yet, when with adults, he is constantly decried for having no idea what he wants to be, for having no idea how the world works, and is given advice on what to do. Perhaps this is true. He is certainly a bit green behind the ears, but just as Mr. Miller was sent to war without knowing how to swim, Joe has been dropped into the world without knowing how to fend for himself. Like everyone else, he learns and adapts on the fly, forced to put together his own life while picking up the pieces of those around him.

Perhaps the only thing holding back Wildlife is the dialogue. It hits on some nice moments and provides the cast with great material, but it feels overwritten at times. A lot of the dialogue given to Jeanette divulges far too much, bordering on her just saying what she is feeling. The touching scene of Jerry saying goodbye to Joe and kissing him is met with an explanation and quick debate about whether or not he is too old to be kissed by his father. It feels incredibly writer-esque, as though the dialogue came to the mind of the writer and they thought it sounded profound, wrote it down, and then never removed it later on. The fact that this is adapted from a book makes a lot of sense, with a lot of the dialogue stuck on the page and not really translating to the screen. This is not a major issue and is not something that occurs throughout - and often, the dialogue is so sweet this flaw is practically endearing - but the times it does hit wrong, it really stands out and takes the steam out of a scene.

Paul Dano has previously established himself as one of the best actors working today. Now, he is one of the most promising directors working today. A powerful and often moving look at a family falling apart in rural Montana, Wildlife’s outstanding cast, strong direction, and precise mise en scene, solidify it as a very good film. This is perhaps Carey Mulligan at her absolute finest, met by a similarly excellent Jake Gyllenhaal. It is a shame that this one was largely lost in the shuffle of 2018, as it is definitely one of the year’s finest and deserves to be digested, dissected, and appreciated by a larger audience.