Paul Dano’s directorial debut, Wildlife is a goldmine of impeccable performances, supremely staged. It burrows into the nature of hunting for individuality and independence while surreptitiously questioning the relational dynamic between child and parent and challenging the gender role status quo of the times. In another sense, it yearns to capture the fury—both righteous and repulsive—within the concept of the American Dream. That fury that burns fervently within for a long, comfortable, and content life, and that same fury that drives one to scorch everything in their path to achieve it.
The Brinsons are your stereotypical 1950s white American working class family. We enter in 1960. They’ve recently relocated to a small town in Montana. Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a do-it-all at the nearby golf club where he landscapes and enjoys socializing with the elite as he shines their shoes. Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) is a stay-at-home mom brimming with confidence and exuberance. Joe (Ed Oxenbould), their 14-year-old son is a good son. He’s diligent, obedient, kind, and understanding. Jerry works, watches football, and oozes patriarchal pride as he fantasizes out loud about his son’s future glory on the field, which, kindly put, is a pipe dream. Jeanette cooks and cleans. Joe listens politely. They are a quiet, cute, cordial, and content family. Per the times, the Brinson parents tend to treat Joe like an adult, preparing him bluntly and transparently for self-sufficiency, oft reminding him of what responsibilities will come (accompanied by an appropriate parental dose of slack and forehead kisses).
Their lives take a sharp turn when Jerry is fired after his boss gets fed up with his penchant to cross social class boundaries at work, no matter how friendly or mutual. Jeanette responds gracefully, adopts a positive perspective on the instance, and encourages her husband to find a new job. But Jerry is too caught up in his pride to continue working in positions of low stature, or so he says. In a cheerily firm and defiant response, Jeanette decides to provide for the family by taking up a part-time job as a swim teacher. Joe gladly quits football to apprentice as a family portrait photographer for some extra cash. Seemingly embarrassed and further capitalizing on his virile arrogance, Jerry announces that he will set off for some indeterminable months to fight the wildfires blazing out in the Montana woods for a pitiful wage. And so commences the collapse of the Brinsons.
It’s no coincidence that Wildlife takes place in 1960, the dawn of the decade that flipped America on its cultural head. It is clear from the beginning that Jeanette is not content with her submissive sidekick status. She harnesses a deep desire to explode out of her role as the normative housewife, which cripples her day by day while fueling her feverous fire. Jerry’s hotly contested decision to leave quickly becomes Jeanette’s detonator. By the following morning, she has already hardened towards his absence and seized her freedom as an independent woman. Caught in between, poor Joe merely pays the price for his parents’ actions.
The rest develops primarily through Joe’s lens as he watches his powerful, determined, and depressed mother blaze ahead, leaving their traditional family structure in her wake. Her anger is justified, her desire for structural change even more so. She fights the suppression and imprisonment of all women by their husbands. But in the process, she grows increasingly selfish, forgetting almost entirely that she has a son to take care of. If anything, Joe takes care of her. He, like his mother, is smart as a whip, wildly independent, and relatively fearless for a 14-year-old. But he lacks his mother’s rage and volatility. His father is still his father whom he loves, despite temporary abandonment born out of cowardice and pride. Jeanette feels no such way. She sneers and cackles at Jerry and the supposed manhood that drove him to fight fire with the boys. Joe is the glue, the soft-spoken hero, the reason this story exists, the crux of the looming final act, and the only selfless one in the bunch.
In all of its blistering emotion, Wildlife refuses to give into mawkish melodrama. Mulligan and Gyllenhaal make good on their reputations as some of the industry’s best, capturing brutally honest moments reminiscent of the best of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and Kate and Leo in Revolutionary Road (2008). Oxenbould prodigiously holds his own amongst them, plainly defying the kind of on-screen insecurity that would plague most 17-year-olds tasked with shining amongst the stars. Praise is well-deserved among all of them (including Bill Camp as the slimy Warren Miller), but the lion’s share of applause belongs to Mulligan, whose fierce and dynamic performance will be criminally underappreciated if it doesn’t land on the 2019 Oscar ballot.
Overall, nothing is lacking. The set design radiates an alluring working class midcentury modern. Diego García provides stunning cinematography. Zoe Kazan and Dano’s co-penned screenplay is dense and sharp. Amanda Ford’s costume work is elegant. The setting is rapturous, and should not be considered anything less than a supporting character. A mountainous Montana dreamscape fills almost every inch of the screen, making the houses and people beneath it seem microscopic. And perhaps they feel that way, too. Perhaps they sense the grandeur of the ranges, which casts a spell of dreamlike ambition and imagination upon them. They burn bright with determination to, at the very least, mirror such grandeur, to escape the smallness they feel in comparison to it, or maybe even to control it, to own it as part of their conquest for the American Dream.
Wildlife is a triumphant behind-the-scenes depiction of the traditional American nuclear family at its breaking point. Hair combed over or curled, dressed in their finest church clothing, wearing humble smiles, they pose for the camera, the community. But, underneath the surface, value systems crumble and cruelty emerges as the hunt for modernity hurtles forth. There is some strong irony there considering the old-fashioned American Dream cannot be lived alone, but the platter of pride that the faulty concept sits on is the sole contradiction that buries it. Wildlife is an exploration of that conceit, that complex fury, that strange intersection of necessary change and its ugly executions. It will hypnotize you like the center of a flame and enrapture you in its ferocity.