Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould), pubescent son of Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), stands in the frame of their bathroom door, staringly lovingly and inquisitively at his mother. She’s readying herself to hit the streets of their new hometown, Helena, Mont., to look for work that will pay better than her part-time gig teaching swimming at the local YMCA. This situation has come about because Jerry has just abandoned his son and wife, signing up to fight the wildfires raging in the north – and ignoring his family’s wishes to the contrary – out of stubborn masculine pride. Joe and Jeanette exchange hopeful wishes for the future, with Joe seeking reassurance from the only person who should represent stability for him. Jeanette isn’t quite stable, though, already showing her penchant for irrational outbursts and flightiness. She questions her son’s trust in her thoughts and motivations, and to that he quips, “I don’t know what you’re thinking.”
The line is an encapsulation of Wildlife as a whole. Actor Paul Dano’s directorial debut – adapted by him and actress Zoe Kazan from the Richard Ford novel of the same name – is a quiet and contemplative film about the ultimately futile effort to truly understand another person. Positioned almost entirely from the youngest Brinson’s viewpoint, the film emerges as a carefully calibrated act of observation about observation itself. Dano often confidently rests his camera either directly on Joe or within his range of sight, allowing audience identification with a character who – possibly to the detriment of the film’s thrust, as this is a slow burn – largely remains a cypher. In this way, Wildlife often resembles a narrative culled from its main character’s memories, albeit one thankfully lacking any preening grasp at nostalgia.
On the contrary, the film is a brutally frank investigation into identity formation and familial influence. Joe, capably played by newcomer Oxenbould, is mostly an innocent and passive bystander in his parents’ volatile relationship. Jerry’s preoccupation with fighting the wildfires stems from the absence of any other purpose in his life. “I got this hum inside my head. I need to do something about it,” he explains to his son as he obsessively watches documentary footage on their half-working television, rhetorically propping up the distant firefighters as heroes. As demonstrated by the family’s constant uprooting, Joe is a rolling stone that happened to gather moss in the form of a wife and son. When he’s fired from the golf course where he initially works, he refuses to return even after his employer concedes that it was a mistake to let him go.
For Gyllenhaal, an actor who’s bounced from indies to mainstream in an effort for cred and relevancy, Jerry is a character that permits him to negotiate between fragile masculine force and a tender aching for purpose, a kind of amalgamation of his career-best roles in Nightcrawler (2014) and Brokeback Mountain (2005). Jerry’s request for an embrace from his son as he’s being shipped away is played beautifully by the actor, becoming a tragic reminder of Jerry’s need for love – one that is squarely at odds with his quest for importance. When he later finds out what his wife has been up to in his absence, Gyllenhaal becomes unexpectedly frightening, flailing and wailing like a wounded wild animal.
What exactly Jeanette has been up to is the main thrust of Wildlife. If the film can be thought of as mystery expressly about people, Jeanette is its complex puzzlebox center. She’s a former beauty queen – as she often likes to point out – once a young woman of promise who dropped out of college to raise her child. She’s just as stuck between stations as her husband; the sort of woman who might have been classified as a “manic depressive” by a doctor contemporary. The film thankfully forgoes any clinical diagnosis, but the 32 year-old woman does demonstrate wild flights of erratic behavior, a lack of impulse control, and severe bouts of hopelessness. Those symptoms having a meeting point when she drives her son up to the wildfires, not to visit his father, but to see the devastation in which the man has recklessly centered himself. Jeanette is also strong-willed, using charm and manipulation as she refuses to take no for an answer when she’s asking for work at the YMCA. That will is precisely what drives her spiral downward as she allows her family life to dangerously overlap her lascivious activities with a local wealthy older man (an appropriately skeezy Bill Camp).
Casting Carey Mulligan as Jeanette is a major coup for new director Dano. She has steadily become one of the most reliable female actors of her generation, just barely missing resounding recognition for any one of her great performances: Daisy in Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby (2013), put-upon Jean in the Coen Bros.’ Inside Llewyn Davis (2014), or her breakout performance in Lone Scherfig’s An Education (2009). Here, the actor’s purposeful speech – an effort to supplant her British accent with a finely tuned American tenor – demonstrates Jeanette’s presentational manner. Mulligan’s performance is remarkably similar to the bolt of electricity that is Cate Blanchett as the titular character in Todd Hayne’s somewhat similar 2015 masterpiece, Carol. Much as Blanchett did with her complex role, Mulligan rarely misplaces a move or a look – save for Jeanette's moments of raw anguish and desperation – her eyes drawing the viewer and the film’s other characters in with the force of a gravitational pull.
Also similar to Haynes’ film, Wildlife takes place during the middle of the 20th century, and it uses the aesthetic values of that era to its thematic benefit. Joe, against his father’s wishes, gets an after-school job at a portrait studio, and that same style of photography informs the color-drained and shallow-focus cinematography by Diego García – the lenser behind Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s gorgeous Cemetery of Splendor (2015) – as well as giving the film an apt (but possibly pat) resolution about capturing memories. Undoubtedly inspired by its rural Montana setting, Dano’s film is also indebted to pastoral American art, occasionally presenting painterly wide compositions as both an ode to the land and to showcase its oppressively loneliness. Notwithstanding its grand Western setting, however, Wildlife has small ambitions, possibly too small for some viewers. It’s a snapshot of a very specific time during in which a young man reckons with the truth of his upbringing and lineage. In other words, it’s perfect fodder for a green filmmaker to render on a large canvas for his first outing – one that proves supremely successful in this case.