“I feel like I need to wake up, but I don’t know what from or to.”
In the annals of film history, I’m not sure there is a more compelling character than the distressed housewife. No matter the cause, whether it’s mental illness (A Woman Under the Influence), rote existence (Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels), economic and romantic hardship (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore), or just a pervading sense of apathy (Wanda), there’s something uniquely fascinating about watching a woman become unhinged by the pressures of society. Perhaps it’s because we (unfairly) hold them to a higher standard; wives, and by extension mothers, are expectedto be the levelheaded ones, everyday superheroes capable of juggling a hundred different problems without ever cracking. But when they go off script, an air of magic arises, one of limitless narrative possibility, as if a caged bird were freed for the first time. Unfortunately, more often than not, the cage just gives way to an even bigger prison.
Wildlife—esteemed actor Paul Dano’s assured, emotionally rich directorial debut (co-written by his longtime partner Zoe Kazan, adapted from the 1990 novel of the same name by Richard Ford)—is about one such woman: Jeanette Brinson (Carey Mulligan), a sometime substitute teacher turned housewife who feels as if her life has passed her by. She lives with her husband, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), a professional golfer of sorts, and their fourteen year old son, Joe (Ed Oxenbould), in a quaint Montana town they’ve only called home for a couple of months. Set in 1960, the drama begins when Jerry loses his job, and with it his sense of purpose, drinking and toiling away alone in his car until one day he volunteers to help fight a wildfire raging on a nearby mountain. Jeanette, who has taken a part-time job as a swim instructor to help keep the family afloat, bristles at the idea; not only is the gig dangerous and the pay insufficient, Jerry accepts it over going back to his old job after his former employer reneges on his firing. Likewise, Joe—also working part-time—doesn’t see the appeal. Still, something calls Jerry to the mountain, and off he goes, if only for a short while, leaving the two to fend for themselves. “What kind of man leaves his wife and child in such a lonely place?” Jeanette laments.
What ensues is mostly filtered through Joe’s perspective, and Oxenbould more than holds his own alongside his more famous and acclaimed costars. Perhaps the only stock character that resonates with me on the level of the distressed housewife is a sad kid, so in a way I was predestined to love this film and his performance. He is a quiet observer, smart but naïve, not quite capable of understanding his mother’s plight. At one point Jeanette drives Joe out to the fire so he can see it for himself, and the camera lingers on his face, eyes watering, throat clenching. “Do you like it?” she asks. “No,” is all he musters, and gets back into the car, the fire raging just beyond in what is probably the film’s most mesmerizing shot.
Gyllenhaal, absent for the bulk of the film, is typically solid, a classic man wrestling with pride and failed ambition. He has a soft voice I never tire of hearing, which lends him the ability to achieve a level of tenderness many leading men wish they could reach. A small but moving moment occurs when he embarks on his soul-searching journey, as he kisses Joe and tells him grown men can love each other too. Clues are given that this isn’t the first time Jerry has disengaged from life, and while he has his fair share of problems, the film never leads you to believe he’s truly abandoned his family.
But this is Jeanette’s show through and through, and to her the feeling of abandonment has been burgeoning long before Jerry decided to become a firefighter. Mulligan, in what is probably a career best performance and easily my favorite of the year, imbues her with a nervous but commanding energy, constrained by her suffocating circumstances while also ready to embrace a new stage in life—or more likely, return to a previous one. Throughout the film she makes references to her life before becoming a mother, repeatedly hinting to Joe about her discontent until it finally proves too strong to conceal. She begins a not-so-secret affair with Warren Miller (Bill Camp, kind but also intimidating), an older, wealthy veteran who owns a car dealership in town. The film reaches a fever pitch at Miller’s house, when Jeanette, dressed in a lime green “desperation dress”, drags Joe over for a dinner he clearly doesn’t want to attend. Suffice to say, she ends up unnerving her son, partly due to her drinking too much, partly due to her finally embracing the overwhelming confusion she’s experiencing. I guarantee after you watch this film, you won’t be able to get Mulligan’s “Cha cha cha” chant out of your head.
It also doesn’t hurt that the film is a looker, with Dano and DP Diego García electing to keep things spare, letting the natural beauty of Montana do the talking. Aside from a few pivotal pans and the occasional tracking shot, the camera rarely moves, preferring to hone in on facial expressions and the conflicted emotions smoldering underneath. Due to the late fall/early winter season, the color palette of the environment is fairly muted, and it helps highlight the oppressive loneliness Jeanette feels.
We should consider ourselves lucky. Rarely do directorial debuts wind up achieving even a fraction of the depth and craftsmanship on display in Wildlife. Dano has long proven himself in front of the camera, and it seems he is poised to join the long list of actors turned quality directors. Likewise, Dano should consider himself lucky, because without a cast of this magnitude who knows how the film would have turned out. Everything comes together perfectly to create a touching portrait of a mid-century dysfunctional family, anchored by a radiant actress at the height of her powers. More domestic dramas about struggling women please.