The Movie Waffler New to MUBI - WILDLIFE | The Movie Waffler


wildlife review
When his father leaves home for work, a teenager watches as his mother embarks on an affair.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Paul Dano

Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould, Bill Camp

wildlife movie poster

Actor Paul Dano makes his directorial debut with an adaptation of Richard Ford's novel Wildlife, cowritten with his partner, the actress Zoe Kazan. An intimate family drama, on the surface it's exactly the sort of movie you might expect from an actor stepping behind the camera, but Dano's direction is assured and he displays an understanding of how the simplest reaction shots can say more than lengthy soliloquies.

It's 1960, which means it's still very much the '50s, as the '60s as we now think of it didn't really kick off until 1963, when the Beatles and the Stones released their first albums, JFK was assassinated, MLK was arrested and things began heating up in Vietnam. Americans were too distracted by the threat of reds under their beds, the giant fridges in their kitchens and the frivolity allowed by disposable incomes to indulge in any soul searching.

wildlife review

The Brinsons seem like the perfect all-American family. Patriarch Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) is well liked in his suburban Montana community and maintains a good job at a local golf course. Housewife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) greets him with a smile and a bottle of beer every evening before he slumps into his favourite chair and tunes the radio to the baseball game. Their 14-year-old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) is on the honours roll at school.

When Jerry loses his job for indulging in gambling with his customers, tensions begin to rise. Refusing to take his job back when his employers reverse their decision, Jerry instead heads off with a crew of men to fight forest fires in the distant woods. Joe takes a part-time job at a photography studio, helping to take pictures of other all-American families in front of a soothing blue background. Jeanette behaves as though Jerry has left her for good, and readjusts her life accordingly, taking a job as a swimming instructor and embarking on an affair with Warren (Bill Camp), an older man who runs a car dealership in town.

wildlife review

Jeanette makes no effort to hide her extra-marital activities from her son. Rather she seems determined to shove his face into what she sees as their new reality, bringing him along for dinner at Warren's and snogging her new suitor in full view of the boy. Joe is dragged out to the forest where his father is battling raging fires and probably demons, and Jeanette makes him watch the trees burn and smell the devastation, like an owner shoving their dog's nose into its own excrement to make a point. "Do you like it?" she asks Joe. "No," he replies, almost in tears. "Well it's what your father chose over us."

Jeanette's behaviour is so cruel and narcissistic that I initially had trouble buying into the character. I felt I was lacking context for this sudden shift in her personality, but then I remembered a key moment. On the way back from viewing the fires, Jeanette and Joe stop off at a diner and the boy asks his mother what age she is. "34," she replies. I'm no mathematician, but by my calculations she would have become an adult during WWII. In another scene, Jeanette raids her wardrobe and dons an outfit she tells Joe she wore as a younger woman. It's a pair of jeans and a shirt with rolled up sleeves, and it makes her look a lot like the woman on the wartime "We can do it!" posters. During the war, Jeanette probably found herself working what was then considered a man's job, and with all able-bodied young men away on duty, she may have been pursued by older men like Warren. In an odd way, it may have been the best time of her life, and Jerry's departure may have prompted memories of a time when she, and the women around her, were in charge of their own fates. Similarly, when Jerry looks longingly at the group of men queuing up for the truck that will take them to fight the forest fire, it probably reminds him of the unique comradeship he found in wartime, and the lack of responsibility he once took for granted at a time when a future seemed a far off fantasy.

wildlife review

The story is told largely through the eyes of Joe, and Oxenbould - so impressive in movies like The Visit, Better Watch Out and The Butterfly Tree - again proves himself a talent to keep an eye on. Dano will often have a major piece of drama play out offscreen, instead choosing to focus on Joe's reaction, and Oxenbould's expressive face does more than carry the dramatic heft. It's Mulligan who really stands out though, albeit in a more showy role. An actress who usually plays shrewish characters, she's cast against type here as the outwardly brassy Jeanette, and it's an inspired piece of casting, as Jeanette herself is playing against type by stepping out of her faithful housewife shoes to play the role of maneating golddigger. In her instants of exaggerated confidence she looks on the verge of crumbling in tears, while in her moments of quiet composure she appears to be suppressing a scream.

If you lay out Wildlife's plot it doesn't offer much that we haven't seen before in such stories of domestic strife behind the picket fences of suburbia, but it boasts a couple of the year's most compelling performances from Oxenbould and Mulligan, and Dano is canny enough to let his camera focus on capturing their quiet brand of magic.

Wildlife is on MUBI UK now.