Movie Review: Wildlife
By Matthew Huntley
November 14, 2018
“It sure is a wildlife, isn’t it son?” screams Joe’s father.
“Don’t ask him, he doesn’t know,” Joe’s mother replies.
This is just one of many things Joe’s mother gets wrong in “Wildlife,” the latest “suburban family dysfunction” drama in which the only character who sees things clearly and rationally is a 14-year-old boy. Contrary to what his mother says, Joe absolutely knows how “wild” and chaotic life can be, because at his tender, formative age, he’s suddenly been forced into a role he wasn’t expecting, one that requires him to not only act as “man of the house” and perform traditional duties like earning an income and making dinner, but to prevent his parents from essentially destroying themselves. This all happens as Joe begins to learn, at an alarmingly fast rate, that his parents are not only not perfect, but that their once idyllic marriage is perhaps no longer so.
There have, of course, been several movies about the downfall of the nuclear family living in a small American town (“Ordinary People,” “American Beauty,” “Revolutionary Road”), but “Wildlife,” thanks to its subtle storytelling and strong performances, manages to find its own place among the crowd. Directed by Paul Dano and written by Dano and Zoe Kazan, based on Richard Ford’s novel, it’s a somber, reflective film about sad people who often delude themselves in order to thwart anger and loneliness, yet who also discover and rediscover their self-worth. It’s also about how personal insecurity, inner soul-searching and coming-of-age are constants in life and don’t end just because you reach a certain age.
I know, I’ve thrown a lot of heavy themes at you, but in spite of its serious motifs, “Wildlife” is surprisingly humble, which, in hindsight, probably plays into the overall message Dano wanted to convey: that even in remote, seemingly uneventful places like Great Falls, Montana, at the dawn of the 1960s, life can be crazy and unpredictable, and there’s always a lot more going on around us that we don’t know about than what we do.
Dano expresses this message unassumingly, with quiet yet passionate confidence, and through the simple observation of his characters, whom he allows the freedom to behave on-screen rather than act. Joe (Ed Oxenbould) is at the center of the story. He’s 14, shy, not especially athletic, and socially withdrawn. He’s at that awkward age where his voice is about to change and acne will soon break out all over his face. In a year or so, he’ll probably shoot up a foot.
Until then, though, Joe must endure being short and admit hard truths to himself, like the fact he doesn’t even like football, which he hesitates to tell his father, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal). Jerry, a wannabe golf pro, has recently moved his wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and Joe to Great Falls, Montana because he got a job as a golf instructor at the local country club. But it’s evident such a move, like others in the past, was impulsive because Jerry was so desperate to find work and provide for his family, but we soon learn his hastiness and pride often get the better of him.
When Jerry is fired from the club for taking bets with the club members (“I got fired for being nice”), the family suddenly finds itself struggling to make ends meet. Jeanette, once a teacher herself, suggests she go back to work, but the mere thought makes Jerry cringe and creates unexpressed anger and resentment. But because he refuses to work menial jobs like bagging groceries, Jeanette has no choice and becomes a swim instructor at the local YMCA.
Jerry, meanwhile, takes to sleeping in his car during the day and staring off into space at night, using cigarettes and alcohol as vices for his remorse and stress. Joe, wise beyond his years, also notices his father sleeping on the couch and realizes the strain between his parents goes beyond money and jobs. He’s not exactly sure what else is at play, and perhaps no one is, which makes it all the more frustrating, but hence life often being inexplicable.
Eventually, Jerry signs up to be a firefighter, knowing full well he’ll be sent to the state’s surrounding mountains to contain the wildfires, a move that not only puzzles but infuriates Jeanette (“Why would you want to work a job where you’ll probably get killed?!”). She knows this is just Jerry’s way of leaving and perhaps neglecting his familial responsibilities.
But Jerry leaves anyway, while Joe has taken a job with the local photographer. And with his father gone, Joe becomes a first-person witness to the undoing of his parents’ marriage as Jeanette begins to reclaim her youth, dressing less like a mother and housewife, drinking more, and entertaining overbearing men like the lascivious Warren Miller (Bill Camp).
What Joe sees and what events transpire, I’ll not reveal, but the value of “Wildlife” is in its patience, and in its slow yet steady examination of the characters as they grasp and react to their changing worlds, which have shifted without warning. As a first-time director, Dano not only displays great control over his story but also exhibits tremendous restraint by not allowing it to succumb to forced or over-the-top melodrama. It must have been tempting for him and the cast to want to heighten the intensity of the characters’ emotions and simply let things spiral control because it would have been more sensational and “entertaining,” but that would have been too easy. Instead, they choose a more honest and understated route, and the result is a film that resonates and reminds us that when it comes to life’s unexpected wrenches, there’s no set, narrative way with which we’re supposed to deal with them. There’s also no guarantee of how they’ll turn out. The best we can do, just as Joe does, is stay focused, keep a level head, and do what we have to do to survive, all of which are harder to do the older we get.