“Wildlife” Review: A Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

Don’t miss the blaze that Carey Mulligan ignites in Wildlife. The British actress gives her considerable all to the role of Jeanette Brinson, a young housewife in Montana, circa 1960. She starts to unravel when her husband Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) heads to the mountains 40 miles away to fight wildfires and leaves her alone to raise their 14-year-old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould).

Wildlife is told from the point of view of a 14-year-old boy named Joe (Ed Oxenbould). Quiet but smart, Joe seemingly lives an idyllic life with his loving parents Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Jeanette (Carey Mulligan). But when his dad gets fired from his job at the golf club and spirals into a pit of alcoholism and depression. Which he dutifully attempts to hide, a strain is put on the relationship with Joe’s strong, intelligent. And resilient mother that perhaps was always bubbling under the surface.

Things go further south when Jerry decides his best option is to go off and join the other men. Who can’t find work and fight forest fires, a dangerous occupation that pays very little. This leaves Joe and Jeanette to fend for themselves, and while Jeanette finds a job at the local YMCA teaching swimming. She begins to question her entire place in life while also attempting to put on a happy face for Joe. He grows increasingly concerned with his mother’s seemingly erratic behavior.

In a beautifully nuanced directing debut

Actor Paul Dano mines the smallest details in Richard Ford’s acclaimed 1990 novel. He and his partner Zoe Kazan wrote the emotionally-attuned script — to create a portrait of a woman.  She can’t quite catch up with the frustration and feminist stirrings she feels inside.

Gyllenhaal, who appears mostly at the beginning and end of the movie. He create a complex and conflicted portrait of Jerry, a golf pro who gets fired from his job. And lets his stubborn pride reject a later offer from his bosses to take him back. His decision to go fight fires for a dollar an hour reflects an impulsive selfishness that leaves his family stunned.

Kudos to the outstanding Oxenbould, 17, an Australian actor. Who lets us experience what’s happening through Joe’s disoriented perspective. (You can imagine a younger Dano, now 34, taking on the part of the boy, a watchful teenager trying to make sense of the confusion his parents are experiencing.)

But it’s Mulligan who provides the film’s focus as Jeanette realizes. That playing her part as a decent, mid-century housewife has left her flailing.

“What kind of man leaves his wife and child in such a lonely place?” she asks. Joe finds part-time work he likes helping a local portrait photographer, a job. That allows him and cinematographer Diego Garcia the chance to search faces for meaning. Mom, however, feels set adrift. Signing on as a swimming instructor brings her into contact with Warren Miller (Bill Camp), a lech whose wealth offers the promise of a safe harbor.

At a catastrophic dinner at Warren’s home, the boy is forced to watch his mother, dancing provocatively for dessert. That begin to consider sexual compromises that he’s not equipped to understand. It’s a stunning sequence of psychological undercurrents that highlights Dano’s rare gift for illuminating the perils of human interaction. Camp, a bravura character actor (The Night Of, The Leftovers), finds the predatory bluster and unexpected kindness in Warren. That just the combo to strike hope and fear in the hearts of Joe and Jeanette.

Wildlife leaves you deeply moved with a vital take on a woman. Who stops tamping down her feelings and forges a new identity out of the ashes of her past.

Jeanette does not want to join the “standing dead,” a term for trees that survive a forest fire. She yearns for something more than getting by. The question is: How can she manifest her independence without damaging her already fragile family unit? The movie makes that clash feel timelessly urgent and thrillingly alive. And as for Mulligan, one word: Wow.

Wildlife does suffer from some pacing issues in its middle section, and some folks may not find the conclusion very satisfying. Regardless, the drama ultimately results in a rich and thought-provoking viewing experience, especially. As it relates to Jeanette and how the film chronicles the experience of being a young mother in 1960.

Comparisons to films like Revolutionary Road will no doubt be made (perhaps subconsciously as a result of Deakins’ cinematography in that family drama). But Wildlife very much stands on its own as a rewarding, gorgeous, and introspective piece of work. Dano and Kazan go deep into the lives of each of these characters,. They taking the time to fill them out with complexity and mystery, refusing to give the audience all the answers.

It’s a film that provokes discussion—about family, about gender roles, about the interior lives people lead. We like to think of our parents as untouchable sources of confidence and comfort. But they’re individuals just like us, with their own passions, desires, and faults. Wildlife digs into the complexity of these dynamics, buoyed by a powerhouse performance from Carey Mulligan. And along the way it announces Paul Dano as a bona fide filmmaker in his own right.


Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material including a sexual situation, brief strong language, and smoking)
Genre: Drama
Directed By: Paul Dano
Stars: Ed Oxenbould, Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan
Written By: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan
In Theaters: Oct 19, 2018 Limited
On Disc/Streaming: Jan 8, 2019
Runtime: 104 minutes
Studio: IFC Films


Peter Howell
Few could play a character so ordinary with as much empathy as Oxenbould brings to the role. He’s one to watch, here and in the future.

Adam Graham
It’s a story of its time, unfolding pre-women’s lib, and Jeanette feels an inner frustration she can’t even give voice to. But as “Wildlife” quietly rages, Mulligan lets it be felt.

Cary Darling
“Wildlife” is the kind of movie whose low-key hush could get lost in all the buzz over the big-name, holiday-season releases. Sometimes, though, it’s the quiet ones who make the most noise.

Matthew Lickona
Mulligan trembles like a souffle on the verge of collapse, and her unfortunate son can do little but watch and listen and do his best to grow up much too fast. Truth be told, it’s his story – but it’s Mulligan’s movie.

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