The opening shot of Wildlife has Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) happily playing football with his 14 year old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) outside their little house on an estate of identical houses before they are called in for the family dinner by wife / mom Jeanette (Carey Mulligan). It’s a picture perfect slice of Americana accentuated by each shot being static and perfectly framed.
Wildlife is actor Paul Dano’s directing debut which he has also co-written too. Jerry has a low paid job at a golf club insisting that Jeanette, his wife, stay at home despite being a teacher to be the perfect American Mom raising their son and cooking their dinner. For reasons never really known Jerry had moved his family around the US a lot having left jobs or been fired and history is about to repeat itself when the golf club boss sacks him for a minor misdemeanor. It’s a choice they soon regret as they’re back on the phone to his wife asking him to come back but Jerry’s a proud man and refuses intent on finding another job which will prove harder than he realizes leaving such a financial strain on the family that his wife takes a part time job as a swimming instructor and even Joe takes a weekend job.
It’s the start of the downfall and isn’t helped when Jerry takes a low paid job as a temporary firefighter who has to move away to fight a huge forest fire much to the annoyance of his wife who is tired of moving about and wants to settle down and make friends. Stubborn, he refuses to back down and goes off fire fighting in a job that might get him killed. It’s one of those choices that many fathers are forced to take but here it’s one that Jerry takes only because his pride won’t let him do anything else.
For much of the second act he disappears and its Joe who watches his mother adopt a devil may care attitude to life making friends with Warren (Bill Camp) the owner of a local car business who she taught to swim. Dano, from this point, puts us in Joe’s shoes watching as his mom’s friendship is clearly much more than that and there’s an excruciating scene for any teenager to go through when he and his mum go to Warren’s house for dinner with her getting tipsy on red wine insisting that Joe dances with his mum before she openly embraces and kisses Warren in front of him. It’s a profound moment with Ed Ovenbould’s face saying it all as he watches: angry, betrayed, upset writ large all over his face.
Paul Dano is probably best known for his great turn in ‘There will be Blood’ playing the antagonist to Daniel Day Lewis Oscar winning turn and more than holds his own against Lewis’ tour de force despite Dano only being 23 years old at the time. Dano is a great actor and it’s that insight that has enabled him to get three great performances from what is a three hander film. Wildlife’s story of a marriage breakdown as seen through the eyes of a teenage boy who can’t process what he should do or what is happening between his parents, whilst not original, is well made. Set in the bleak featureless landscapes of Montana it is expertly handled. Whilst Gyllenhaal continues his string of Oscar worth roles after Nightcrawler, Southpaw, & Stronger having been only had one nomination for Brokeback Mountain in 2006. Carey Mulligan as his adulterous wife has the better role and Ed Oxenbould shows that he will only get better as he gets older.
Here’s the trailer for Wildlife…..