By Afra Nariman
Directed by: Paul Dano
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould
A story that follows a 14-year-old boy named Joe (played by Ed Oxenbould) and his family living in 1960s Montana, in a town near a raging wild fire. When Joe’s father Jerry (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) loses his job and his sense of purpose, he decides to join the fight against the fire, and leaves Joe and Jeanette (played by Carey Mulligan) to fend for themselves. Joe is thrusted into adulthood, as he witnesses his mother struggle to keep her head above water and begin to create a life for herself.
Paul Dano has already made a reputable name for himself as a prominent actor in the 21st century, highlighted by his performances in films like There Will Be Blood, Little Miss Sunshine, Prisoners and Meek’s Cutoff. Now, as he is venturing into the role of a director, he seems to be on track to be just as prominent in this endeavor as he was in his last, perhaps even more so. With his 2018 debut film as a director, Wildlife, he has made a splash that is rarely matched in size and impact when it comes to filmmakers’ first directed films. Quinten Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs was a magnificent debut feature that gave people a simplistic glance at what he would offer cinema over the next few decades. Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, was also a great debut film that was poetic, deep and artistically sound, and gave people a glimpse into the voice that Lee would go on to communicate through in his storied filmmaking career. If Wildlife is any indication of what Dano will be contributing to the world’s cinematic archives over the next few decades, then perhaps in 20 or 30 years, we will use this film as an example of one of the historically great debuts of one of the world’s most prominent filmmakers of the time.
Wildlife is a portrayal of majestic storytelling that stays with you long after the screen goes dark and the story is finished. The film has a certain raw, natural element about it that makes watching it a refreshing cinematic experience. Although the story is completely grounded and not at all mystical, there is something particularly fantastic and mystically immersive about it. It tells the story of a struggling, lower-middle class family living in Montana in the 1960s — but it does so with an almost unparalleled style and flow. The story feels undeniably real, yet unbelievably sculpted in it’s delivery. It hypnotizes you with the vast nature that surrounds an isolated town in Montana, with short, yet direct dialogue that is articulated through particular and poetic prose, and through a story that is soft and soothing, yet riveting and intriguing. It manages to be both emotionally powerful and beautifully calm. The entire film flows peacefully, with no breakage in its constant tide, but we’re never just waiting for a part of the film to pass; everything is interesting. The film is simple, but it subtly demands your undivided attention in every moment. As the film progresses, we slowly become absorbed into the story and come to realize that we are in the hands of a truly special and frankly, beyond incredible film. Now, the story —
Wildlife is an extremely personal film that follows Joe, a quiet 14-year-old kid who loves his family, as he is thrusted into adulthood and forced to witness the family he loves so dearly, slowly fall apart. The film opens by showing us how happy the family is. Their life, although not extravagant, seems to be blissfully at peace and joyfully complete. Then, a life-altering variable is released into the family dynamic — financial insecurity. Joe’s family is somewhat nomadic, moving from city to city whenever Joe’s father, Jerry needs to find a better job. Now, after settling comfortably and happily, they face uncertainty once again when Jerry is fired from his relatively stable job for “being liked too much,” as Jerry put it. After losing his sense of purpose, Jerry finds himself in a rut for some time, before he suddenly decides to leave to go and help fight the raging wild fire that is ravaging just outside of town. He leaves with an ambiguous return date of “when it snows.” Jeanette begins to pivot in her life’s focus. Feeling abandoned by her husband, Jeanette begins to look out for herself more, consequently at the expense of her son. She misses her youth and freedom, and wants to go back to a time when she had little to no responsibilities and pressure; ultimately she seeks fulfillment. In one of the early moments of Jeanette’s change of mentality, she says to her son:
Jeanette didn’t want to be only a parent and misses who she once was. Jerry leaving has put even more responsibility on her shoulders and she refuses to let it weigh her down; but in doing so, she allows an unfair burden to be transferred to her son, who is now forced to deal with his parents’ issues, as he witnesses first hand, his mother’s outburst of freedom as she begins to have an affair and acts differently in Jerry’s absence. She begins to give Joe very little attention, in many respects, relinquishing some of her responsibilities as a mother. After his father leaves them to fend for themselves, his mother begins to slowly leave him to fend for himself. Joe finds himself dealing with the fear of losing his father from a fire that he went to fight without taking his family’s opinions into consideration, and the anxiety of losing his family altogether, as his mother begins to somewhat “go wild” and separate herself from the family. Many of the things he witnesses can be quite scarring as well, such as seeing his mother’s affair unfold in person. At the beginning of the film, Joe’s family seems extremely together and happy, but the film depicts how financial insecurity can lead down a path of deterioration for any family. In Wildlife, each of Joe’s parents has their own agenda, and neither takes into account how their decisions affect the rest of their family, especially their young son.
Although the film is told gently and with a light tone, it lands in your mind with majesty and strength, through brilliantly fluid storytelling and a level of anticipation that is somehow very prevalent in such a simple story of family struggles. One of the most powerfully lingering scenes of the film comes in middle of the night, when Joe hears a sound and gets up to see what it is. For about five minutes, give or take, we have practically utter silence, other than a few quiet sounds, as Joe begins to look around and realizes that his mother has just slept with another man by the name of Mr. Miller, a wealthy car salesman. The scene is completely hypnotic and after minutes of deafening silence, we are shocked just as much as Jeanette, when she screams after unexpectedly finding Joe looking around her room.
In multiple instances throughout the film, including this one, Jeanette and Joe have very personal conversations about love, happiness and depression that no 14 year old son should have to have with their mother. After realizing that Joe has learned about her sleeping with Mr. Miller, Jeanette opens up to him, even saying:
“I wish I was dead… if you have a better plan for me, tell me.”
In a powerfully tense moment of the film that is in many ways a turning point in Joe’s story, he responds:
“I don’t have one.”
… and then walks away.
Jeanette is in obvious pain. She feels alone and gradually loses her way as she is trying to be someone else, a version of herself that she feels has gone extinct — or at least has been shoved so deep inside of her, unable to come to the surface as she has suffocated under the pressure of domestic family life, which has hindered and stunted the level of fulfillment that she is after. As a temporary treatment for her ailing psyche, she uses her affair with Mr. Miller as a way to pull her out of the depths of mediocrity that she believes her life has come to. Unfortunately, her actions understandably have an incredibly negative effect on Joe. After the troubling interaction with his mother in middle of the night, Joe packs his bags and decides to run away; but before he gets on the bus to leave town, snow begins to fall. Remembering his father’s ambiguous attempt at setting a return date, Joe excitedly runs back home and awaits his father’s long overdue return. Soon after, Jeanette breaks the news to Jerry about her desire to leave the family. Joe, still stuck in between all of this, expresses his anxiety for the future when he innocently asks:
“What’s going to happen to us?”
He just wants his family back the way it was, but reality can often times be more complicated and is, more often than not, disappointing. After a sequence of eventful scenes, in which Jerry learns about Jeanette’s affair and reacts out of his initial anger, we see a bit into the family’s future. Things have settled down, but they are nowhere near what they used to be. Jeanette no longer lives with them; in fact, she lives in a whole other state. She has gone off to live on her own, getting the fresh, new and fulfilling life that she wanted so badly. The film ends when she returns to visit for a few days.
Early in the film, Joe takes a job as a photographer at a photo-shop. One of his boss’s first lessons is that the purpose of the shop is to help families capture the happiest moments of their lives. Ecstatic about his mother’s return and the fact that he has his family back together, even if it is just for a few days, Joe drags his parents to the shop in order to capture one of the happiest moments of his life in recent memory. The film beautifully ends as they pose for their portrait.
Wildlife features two of the best performers of our time in Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan. In Gyllenhaal’s limited screen time, he is spectacular. Mulligan’s performance is inspiring, full of life and one of the most unique acting performances in recent memory. The film’s production is also magnificent. The vast and isolated setting of a Montana town as a nostalgic, past time-period gives the film an element of passive power and grace. Additionally, from a production standpoint, the music that is elegantly interwoven throughout critical moments of the film is beautifully placed; though it never becomes an emphasis of the film, as it still uses silence in many scenes to garner our attention.
The film is full of moments that take you by shock and give you that uneasy feeling in your stomach, due to not knowing what will happen next. These moments, headlined by the silently tense scene depicted earlier in this review, are truly breathtaking, as they forcefully grab your breath, making it difficult to exhale and impossible to hear anything through the deafening silence that grabs hold of your senses. Your sight and thoughts are completely dictated by the film’s gradual, but assertive tone and story. In the exemplified scene where Joe is searching his home in utter silence, we are given a window into the story that enables us to sympathize with Joe by putting ourselves in his point of view, in that specific moment. Your senses are numbed in these moments. You’re hooked though, for every other moment of the film as well. Wildlife is genuine and extraordinary. Highlighted by Carey Mulligan’s masterful acting performance, this film is elusively great and undeniably memorable.