Film Review: Wildlife
The breakup of the American marriage is a subject much explored in film and literature, yet rarely is it done so quite so thoroughly and quite so nakedly as it is in Wildlife, Paul Dano’s first foray into direction adapted from the Richard Ford novel of the same name.
Set in small-town 1960s Montana, with the backdrop of painfully topical raging forest fires just miles from the town, the film follows the teenager Joe, whose parents’ marriage crumbles before him when his recently unemployed father, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) deserts the family to take a low-paying job fighting the fires in a desperate bid to regain some semblance of masculine pride. He leaves Joe and his mother Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) to fend for themselves, her behaviour becoming more erratic as the film goes on – forcibly repositioning Joe into the role of confidant despite his immaturity. She tells him, after describing aspects of her pre-marriage life: “it must be nice to know your parents were people before they were your parents”. Indeed, this encapsulates the essence of the film: of a boy witnessing the uncovering of his parents as two very real, and increasingly vulnerable people – dealing unsuccessfully with traumatic rifts in their personal lives.
In his father’s absence, Joe’s mother essentially reverts to a sort of pre-marriage mode, shirking all parental responsibility and instead focussing solely on the dual pursuits of getting work and finding a new man in what is a bid to repair the rift that has dissolved what was a previously functioning family unit. Joe is increasingly bewildered and isolated by this new vulnerable version of his mother, who shows increasing signs of mental trauma and indignation following her husband’s actions, in what is a startling lead performance by Cary Mulligan, who as the deserted wife somehow successfully portrays someone who is both undeniably strong, and yet recklessly selfish and unstable. All the while, burning in the background is the (albeit obvious) symbolic backdrop of the great ravenous wildfires in the Montana forests, reflecting the violent undercurrents boiling under the surface of this small-town suburban family life.
Wildlife deftly addresses the tradition of American divorce dramas, which similarly focus on male pride, suburban boredom and the oppressive nature of the American brand of the institution of marriage, in what is a largely subtle and considered adaptation. Neither Jerry or Jeanette are wholly demonized during the film, or even blamed for the split – as indeed, in a narrative archetype that traditionally explores the taking on of familial responsibility by one spouse (Kramer vs Kramer, Revolutionary Road etc…), no one seems to take any responsibility at all besides the child, Joe, who from the outset is confronted by uncertain and emotionally dependent parents. The film is as such both highly critical of both parties, and yet fundamentally sympathetic of their struggles with their insecurities. The real victim is Joe of course, who is taught through seeing the extreme unreliability of his parents exactly how he shouldn’t be. In a poignant scene midway through the film, Carey Mulligan’s Jeanette takes Joe to the scene of the fire and sets him in front of the slowly revealed towering flames in order to show him what exactly his father has left them for.
It is almost expected throughout the film that at some point Joe will snap, lash out, blame and act just as selfishly as his two parents are acting. Refreshingly, however, he does not, and remains instead throughout wholly kind, sensitive if not bewildered and tired of the situation.
The film does drag during the second half – as we wait for the inevitable moment when Joe’s father returns and confronts his wife for what has happened since he has been gone, and there are instances in which it is too overtly symbolic including the long, meandering didacticism of Mr Miller, Jeanette’s lover. What Wildlife achieves however, is a timely and well adapted story humanness, insecurity and devastation of the fracturing of marriage.