‘Wildlife’ Lays Low & Stays Hidden

by Warren Cantrell on November 8, 2018

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rating: Swiss Fist]

A micro-exploration of a family’s disintegration in the shadow of Eisenhower’s America and the last vestiges of “the West,” Wildlife is a study in love, regret, and the all-too-rapid advance from adolescence into adulthood.

Adapted from the Richard Ford novel of the same name, the film follows the Brinson family and their navigation of a rough patch that threatens to break up their nuclear existence. And while rookie director Paul Dano does imbue his film with a number of genuine, honest moments, spotty character work and an absence of narrative momentum keep Wildlife from realizing its full potential.

The movie opens in 1960 rural Montana, not long after the Brinson clan has settled into the area. Joe Binson (Ed Oxenbould) is a happy, quiet kid of fourteen who lives with his mother, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), and father, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), the latter of whom has just lost his job. Wounded not just from the loss of income, but also from what appears to be a base self-loathing stemming from his inability to support the family, Jerry sinks into a boozy depression. Clues filter in from conversations and casual asides that this isn’t the first time Jerry has lost a job, and it seems like the family’s recent Montana relocation was the result of a predicament not at all unlike the one they find themselves in at that very moment.

Whether it is a way to punish himself, or because he can’t bear to go home to the family he’s failed, Jerry decides to leave for a firefighter encampment outside of town, where he’s secured a very dangerous job for some seasonal work fighting a local blaze. Again, although it isn’t stated outright, the audience learns that this kind of behavior isn’t out of the norm for Jerry, and while Joe loves and trusts his dad, Jeanette hits a breaking point with this. Joe watches as his mother transforms herself overnight into an outwardly independent woman looking to move on (and eager to demonstrate that fact to anyone who’s watching).

Joe finds himself in the front row of these theatrics when his mother starts up a relationship with a local car dealer, Mr. Miller (Bill Camp), accelerating the encroachment of a sober adulthood Joe is woefully underprepared for. As Wildlife proceeds, Jeanette uses Joe like a pH strip, dunking him again and again to test the waters of her newfound independence, gauging not just his reactions, but also her own. Old enough to understand what is going on, but seemingly too young to demonstrate any agency, Joe is little more than a captive witness to developments as they unfold.

And this is the first problem of Wildlife: Joe’s position in the narrative as a spectator rather than an active agent. Throughout the picture, Joe utters lines like, “what’s going to happen?” or “what are you going to do?” rather than doing or saying anything to initiate action. To be caught in the middle of an emotional tug-of-war between parents whose relationship is splintering is a tragic thing, yet it is no more cinematic than a car accident. The fuel for conflict, sure, and a possible basis for interesting character explorations, yet the focus on this in and of itself comes off as more than a little voyeuristic.

Although Joe is the main character of Wildlife, and events are seen through his eyes, this passive observation on his behalf remains consistent throughout the picture. Making matters more challenging is the fact that the character the film spends the most time with aside from Joe is Jeanette, whose callous expressions of independence in front of her son cast her in a less than flattering light. Although understandable, Jeanette’s actions make her feel better at the expense of Joe, who she treats as an emotional proxy in her husband’s absence. Wildlife thus has two unsympathetic adults and a passive teenager to tell its story, which adds up to an uncomfortable movie about unlikable adults and one rock-kicking, hands-in-his-pockets aw-shucks kid.

Like most actors-turned-directors, Dano gives his performers a lot of room to operate in, and the work of Gyllenhaal and Mulligan does ring with a brutal, heartfelt honesty that is true to the story and the characters. Although they are hard to sympathize with, that doesn’t mean that Jerry and Jeanette are anything less than complex, genuine characters played by actors in complete control of their crafts. The visual presentation of Wildlife also rings true, with the sterile, expansive, stark, yet gorgeous presentation of the American mid-west. Like a relationship, there’s beauty on the surface with unpredictable volatility in the wings: warm sunny days broken up with tempestuous thunderstorms and even the occasional wildfire (from which things both die and are reborn).

In this way, Wildlife is thematically consistent and even insightful, presenting uncomfortable yet genuine truths that are about as fun to watch as they are to experience in real life (so, not that much fun). Although this doesn’t make it a bad movie, it does mean that it is not all that enjoyable to behold. Fantastic performances bolster the effort, however, breathing life into a difficult story that never sounds a false note, yet finds a way to be a bit of a downer all the same.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and The Playlist. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing.


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