Around the midpoint of Paul Dano’s directorial debut, Wildlife, Bill Camp’s Warren Miller, in an attempt to bond with young Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould) and explain the recent actions of Joe’s mother Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), tells an anecdote of the time he took his plane up into the air. He was meant to survey a farmer’s failed crops from upon high and figure out what went wrong with them, but he became distracted by seeing several flocks of geese flying around his plane in a V-formation. Rather than do his job, he switched off his engine at 4,000ft and sat in the air listening to the geese honk. The thought about what those below who loved or counted on him, his friends and family and employees at his successful businesses, would do never entered his mind. It’s not that he didn’t care about them, he just needed this moment to himself. Joe smiles and nods, briefly accepting this excuse as fact given that the man talking to him is at least thrice his age, but we can tell he knows deep down that this is wrong. Yet he keeps his silence because it’s not like Warren’s going to stop enabling his mom.
It’s 1960 in suburban Montana. The Brinsons, consisting of stay-at-home mom Jeanette, working father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), and 14-year-old Joe, are the picture-perfect suburban family. They have a decent house, Jerry’s working and pretty good at his job, Jeanette and he get on great, and Joe is working at an advanced level for his class and trying out football. But the cracks soon start to show: cheques are bouncing, Jerry gets fired for insubordination and turns to the bottle, the strain of the Brinson’s marriage is starting to show since it turns out that they’ve spent much of their lives moving states whenever Jerry loses a job, and there are raging wildfires deep in Montana that Jerry’s wounded masculinity is drawing him towards for work as some kind of self-flagellation. Jeanette has had enough, Jerry runs away (again) to take on this dangerous work, and Joe is left to watch his mother crumble under a lifetime of regret and resentment that she is passively taking out on him.
Wildlife is about two people drowning, thrashing and clawing with no greater plan, dragging their son down with them for no better reason than his being around to act as a witness. If you’ve come from a broken home, forced to watch one or both of your parents self-destruct at that specific age where you are old enough to be cognisant of what they are doing but too young to save them or yourself from the damage, then Wildlife will strike all of your rawest nerves because I can tell you for a fact that it did so for me. This is a very reactive film, which is reflected by Dano’s austere direction, all tight close-ups on actors faces and wider shots emphasising the uncomfortable distance and empty space in the lives of the Brinsons.
Joe’s parents alternate between infantilising him and trying to force a hard decision on matters he’s way out of his depth with. Jerry drags his son out to his pity drinking sessions, looking for unspoken dirt on Jeanette’s antics and a silent shoulder to cry on whilst Joe sits in uncomfortable silence. Jeanette is arguably even worse, bringing Joe along on her dalliances with a formerly-married man at least twice her age for no good reason and dumping her depression on him as if it’s Joe’s fault she can’t figure out some kind of solution. A lot more of these scenes than I feel comfortable admitting reflected personal experiences across my life, and Dano (plus co-screenwriter Zoe Kazan) replicate that truth to a painful degree. All that emotional torture and feelings of helpless loss, impossible to find the right words and settling for the ones that may cause the least trouble.
Gyllenhaal and Mulligan are both excellent, because of course they both are, but the true star is Oxenbould. His is a vital performance as the film is predominately from Joe’s perspective, with the viewer only occasionally being made privy to information he’s not, and he’s absolutely brilliant. He’s been blessed with the kind of doe-eyes and round cherubic face that are made for characters losing their innocence, but he also knows how to best to work those features and infuse them with soul.
Dano’s debut doesn’t always work – it escalates to an act that feels too grand for a film this insular, especially since the consequences are swept away as soon as it’s done, and the script can’t resist being a vessel for monologue speeches that cryptically explain the film’s themes every now and again – but Wildlife does build to a killer final shot. There’s a runner throughout the film involving Joe getting a job at a photo shop in order to help bring some income into the house, designed to demonstrate how people take photos as permanent records of idealised moments in time. And whilst Dano returning to that idea for his closer sounds incredibly hacky, in reality it undercuts the seemingly clean resolution by lingering on the messy damages wrought across the narrative. That some family wounds are too deep-seated and uncomfortable to sufficiently suppress for even the length of a single photograph.