Directed by: Paul Dano
Written by: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan and Richard Ford
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan, Bill Camp and Ed Oxenbould
Run Time: 1h 44min
4 Frames out of 5
By: Shari K. Green
When I read the synopsis for this movie, I wasn’t expecting what I ultimately received. It was outlined properly but ‘Wildlife’ (the title will make sense when you watch it) was so much more than what the trailer suggests. From the title, you don’t foresee yourself taking the journey you’re about to take with the characters in this film. It was such an emotional task, I’d like to see it again and soon. It stays with you.
Making his directorial debut after helping pen the script with Zoe Kazan and Richard Ford, Paul Dano, adds a special touch that seems to accompany all of the characters he plays; one of quiet, deep contemplation, internal reflection, and inspection of oneself. I see in the son of the main character, Joe (Oxenbould) the roles Dano chooses for himself. I would go so far as to say Joe is the central figure of the piece rather than his mother Jean (Mulligan). Joe is a boy of fourteen and soon a lot more than should be will be asked of him. He’s forced to grow up rather quickly and steady a rock he isn’t nearly ready to climb. A pivotal question is, will he be able to and how will this affect his life after?
Set in 1960’s Montana, Jerry (Gyllenhaal) loses his job and is having a difficult time finding another. Jean and Joe are worried about finances and let him know they’re willing to work to help pay the bills and put food on the table. Prideful and with his masculinity in question, Jerry doesn’t want his wife and son working to support the family when that’s what he’s there for. Instead, though it’ll take him out of the house, he accepts employment as a firefighter. Near the border, the state is in need of help to contain an uncontrolled fire. Very symbolic of Jerry and Jean’s relationship the fire is consuming everything in its path. Concerned and now regretting their recent move to Montana, Jean’s misgivings are more about what his taking a job so far from home really means and asks, ‘What kind of man leaves his wife and child in such a lonely place.’
The script is so impressively written and so serious in its approach to these lives after Jerry leaves, you soon see that the present and his job aren’t the problems for Jean, but that something else may have happened to her in the past that she can’t entirely escape from. The drama builds from that point on. You watch the drama unfold from Joe’s point of view, witnessing his mother fall apart before his very eyes. You’ll be drawn in with excellent performances and outstanding writing that, rather appropriately, let’s this story, as Dano does the best, slowly develop. You’ll be mystified and mesmerized and speculate just how manic has this woman become as well as ponder how balanced was she really before? What is it that kept her from showing these signs of self-doubt. What is she willing to do to right the ship and for whose best interest?
Jean speaks to Joe as if he’s her friend, not her child, a recipe for disaster. She talks to him in a manner she shouldn’t and is operating in a way that his young mind can’t quite comprehend; his eyes observe what they should never see. Despondent, the child reminds his mother of her responsibilities as a parent and of his father as she flirts with other men to feel better about herself or, as you assume is the case from her behavior, move on to something better. Perhaps it’s both? Unfortunately for Joe, he’s about to find out.
Mulligan is downright frightening to watch in this portrayal as she slips on her ‘desperation dress’ and devours more alcohol. It’s hard to see this being overlooked during Academy time. Oxenbould was the perfect choice to give the audience a feeling of desperation and hope at the same time. He eats alone, shops and does the dishes as his mother becomes less available to him but he always appears to have faith that things will work out. However, over time it starts to slip. Close Up shots and landscapes are used to put you in this town, in the house, and in the conversations and work to magnify the story. Jerry forces Joe to talk and Dano, magnificently might I add, forces you to watch Joe’s struggle with being in the middle of his parent’s pain and struggle. While at the same time, they’re ignoring their son’s. This is a very complex and deeply profound film to watch. I must insist you see it. The very end scene captures it all. ‘Hold still.’ Look. What do you see?