Flames smoulder under the surface of Wildlife, Paul Dano’s first feature film. As they slowly turn into a blaze that ravages relationships and levels the remains of the old lives to the ground, the fresh soil for a new future emerges for the family that struggles to save themselves from falling apart.
Following the plot of Richard Ford’s novel, Wildlife introduces us to a tiny household in Indiana, where a family of three tries to settle after a period of constant relocations. It seems that Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) have found their home: he works at a local golf club, she stays at home to take care of the household. Their son, fourteen-year-old Joe, didn’t manage to befriend anybody at school just yet, but he’s keenly assisting a local photographer after school to learn the tools of the trade. The picture-perfect image of the family crumbles apart when Jerry loses his job at the local golf club for acquainting himself with customers. The family faces the prospect of moving once more as the man of the family decides to volunteer as a firefighter close to Canadian border, but his wife and son decide to stay put, waiting for him in the small town they’ve only moved to.
Saving a family takes just as much courage and engagement as extinguishing the forest wildfires – but if there are no volunteers to fight the sudden outburst, the forces of nature can turn it into an uncontrollable, destructive blaze. With fairly limited screen time, Jake Gyllenhaal brings us a character that buckles under the traditional family role imposed on him by the society. Although his Jerry strives to take care of his wife and son, his own preconceptions and unfulfilled yearning for progress continuously hold him back. Life doesn’t deliver explanations when he asks what he did wrong. Even though he tries to be the embodiment of well-liked and accomplished man, he clashes with his unchanged status time after time. He can’t help rejecting the offer of return when his previous employer realises they’ve made a mistake, even if it would keep him close to his family – his pride gets in the way, and he decides to escape it by relocating. It’s not his first time to act that way, but it becomes the last straw for his wife.
You only need one spark to ignite a flame that ravages the present until it reaches the emotions buried under the rubble of the past. Transforming her character from an overwhelmed but supportive housewife into a woman she forgot about, Carey Mulligan gradually reawakens the girl who loved dancing and had men at her command. As she alters between two visions of Jeannette, her performance takes us on a journey that leads the entire film.
Mulligan’s heroine often thinks back to her young, energetic and rebellious self that was left behind somewhere in the past, suppressed under the weight of the years she spent dedicating her life to her family. Reminiscing out loud, she finally manages to bring back the girl she once was.
Speaking her wishes into existence, she treats her son as an adult rather than a teenager he is. Confiding in him with her plans, she doesn’t bother to hide much. And she certainly doesn’t want the same mundane destiny for Joe. While they wait for a meal in a local diner, she confesses his name was meant to empower him to become whoever he wanted to be. She dismisses her own as a name appropriate only for a waitress – a predestination forced on her by her own parents, a fate she tries to untangle from in search of a new start. But the process of reversing her past isn’t straightforward: while she looks for freedom and a better life for her son, she needs to reach a compromise with herself one more time.
When his parents are busy firefighting the blaze of their own feelings, Joe (a brilliant performance by Ed Oxenbould) finds himself silently observing the changes and adapting to the changes. His mother assumes that Jerry is lost since he first announces his decision to volunteer. “Men either go crazy, or it’s another woman,” she says, trying to rationalise the decisions she’s about to make, and her sentiment is further echoed by Warren (Bill Camp) who doesn’t seem convinced that his lover’s husband will make it back alive. Joe doesn’t give up on hope; he misses his father but adapts to changes enforced by his mother. Slumping into powerlessness, he soaks up the air of tiresomeness and resentment that surrounds him. Even if he constantly questions the situation, he finds himself lost in the world of adults, removed from the ability to decide about things that impact him.
Incredibly attentive to detail, Paul Dano takes us on a tour through the small-town life by engaging with the subtlest of details. Even Jeanette’s immaculate fifties wardrobe choices accentuate the state of her mind, changing from the plain dresses to silk blouses or even ballgowns when the situation requires it. Dipped in a cool colour palette, a polar opposite to the colours of raging fire, are the interiors of a working-class home of the Brinsons and middle-class décor of Warren Miller’s house. An occasional look at the world outside doesn’t always warm it up to us. Wildlife plunges into blues and artificial lights, unfolding during the autumn days and evenings that will inevitably bring us closer to the anticipated first snowfall – and Jerry’s return.
Although it unfolds slowly, the deep study of the characters and their motives makes Wildlife a pleasant, in-depth story of destruction and reinvention. Beautifully filmed and cautiously observed, Paul Dano’s editorial debut is a smouldering, slow burn, but a powerful one.
Wildlife opens in the UK as a part of the London Film Festival. The film will open nationwide on the 9th of November 2018.
- Wildlife (2018)