Paul Dano’s impressive directorial debut is based on Robert Ford’s 1990 novel. As is common with Ford’s fiction, one of the protagonists has some relationship with sport and, like many of his characters, the parents in Wildlife are drifters of sorts. The setting is Montana, where Ford’s popular short stories were set.
Dano very quickly sets the scene and this seemingly sweet small-town family is soon revealed to be a poisonous cauldron bubbling below a calm surface. Dad is Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), mum is Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and their 14-year-old only son is Joe (Ed Oxenbould). The trio of Js seem happy: Jerry has a job at the golf club, Jeanette is a stay-at-home mum and Joe is sailing through school and tackling football. Yet this apparent idyll is not what it seems: Jerry used to be a pro golfer, Jeanette is lonely in her new town and Joe doesn’t actually like football, however much his dad wants him to. Jerry has had work troubles in the past, leading the family to uproot and trudge across the country. Jeanette is apparently the powerhouse and when her husband loses his job, she is quick to come up with solutions. Joe gets on board and gets a job as a photographer’s assistant, spending his working days photographing people trying to look happy. Jeanette becomes a swimming instructor at the YMCA, where she teaches Warren Miller (Bill Camp), a war veteran with a gammy leg to prove it. However, he is wealthy and newly single, something Jeanette takes an active interest in when Jerry decides to become a firefighter and heads to the Montana hills.
There are some shocking images in the film, thanks to the fantastic work of cinematographer Diego Garcia. We know it’s 1960 as we are repeatedly told the date, but there are scenes reminiscent of the Depression, particularly with the drifters and hobos looking for work. Jeanette drunkenly brings this point home when dining chez Miller with poor, mortified Joe in tow. However, what Jeanette is railing against is not so much her impoverished social condition as her frustration at being lumbered with a proud, rash husband.
There’s the oppression of the poor, but the general mood of the film is oppressive. The film rarely changes pace and the flatness of this semi-misery weighs the film down. There were also a handful of scenes that did not ring true: Jeanette swigging from a beer bottle in a diner, talking to her son about her sex life and also the way she handles her affair with Warren.
The stability is shown by Joe, who watches in mute horror as his parents crumble before him for Jeanette reveals herself to be as unhinged as her husband. These two people, so buoyantly in love when young, are flailing and drowning in adulthood. I found Gyllenhaal and Oxenbould particularly impressive, while Jeanette’s reinvention and disintegration seemed too rapid.
Music plays an important role in the film: in a classy and touching move Dano has dedicated this film about the plight of unhappiness to the composer Johan Johansson, who died earlier this year (David Lang was responsible for the score for this film). Dano has given us a lovely-looking story of growing up in an unhappy marriage. The final scene of the family photo is a lovely, albeit bitter note to finish on.