The directorial debut of Paul Dano, Wildlife is a picturesque triumph. Based on Richard Ford’s novel of the same name, Dano’s direction mixed with stunning cinematography from Diego Garcia creates an alluring tableau of America in the postwar era.
The film follows the story of Joe (Ed Oxenbould), a young teen who has moved to a small town in Montana in the 1950s. His parents struggle to keep the family afloat – living paycheque to paycheque. After being fired, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes a low paid job fighting a raging wildfire meaning he has to leave his wife and child behind. This signifies the beginning of the end for Jerry’s relationship with Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), who is struggling to cope with Jerry’s choice to leave.
Jerry, who is permanently exhausted, is forced to accept a job fighting the wildfire due to fearing that his masculinity is being questioned. Jeanette and Joe both get jobs, Jeanette becomes a swimming teacher and Joe is a photographer’s assistant, to help support the family whilst he’s unemployed, making him feel inadequate. He becomes visibly irritated and annoyed whenever Jeanette mentions her job, and as a last attempt to save his dignity he signs up to help fight the fire. It highlights the toxicity of masculinity back in the 1950s and the intense pressure men felt to be the breadwinner, leading them to make difficult choices.
Carey Mulligan is outstanding, giving you many reasons to sympathise with Jeanette, then just as many reasons to hate her. Jeanette struggles with Jerry leaving, and begins to spiral out of control. She treats her teenage son as an adult, as he watches her go from a loving housewife to a distraught wife, then to a flirtatious and rebellious woman looking for a solution. Jeanette begins a flirtation with Mr Miller (Bill Camp), a wealthy car-salesman, wondering if there are better options for her other than her husband. Joe is a witness to Jeanette’s thought process and is left to fend for himself whilst she goes on this journey of discovery.
The wildfire is a symbol of problems throughout the film. The flames destroying the forest as well as the family relationship. At one point, Jeanette takes Joe to see the wildfire to show him what his father left him for – suggesting the fire is more important to deal with than his relationship with his family. There are many moments like this that sting for us as an audience, but we are never shown Joe’s true feelings. There are long striking close-ups of his face that leave his feelings for interpretation, a deliberate point to make the audience consider our own feelings in these moments.
Wildlife is definitely worthy of a watch, the aesthetically pleasing shots and acting draw you in. Dano interweaves moments of perfectly observed images of Joe’s customers in their ideal families posing for portraits, accentuating Joe’s failing family. It’s a fulfilling drama focussed on the collapse of the idyllic family that you won’t want to miss.
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