Children see themselves and their parents as parts of a single whole we call family. Some children realise later in life, as adults, the individuality of the parts that make up the family. In other cases, they’re forced to realise this when the whole collapses. A child is in one of the most helpless states they can be when they have to watch that collapse, witnessing everything that’ll contribute to the outcome that they somehow know is about to happen. A child cannot choose sides between two people who they once thought were a whole, and as we watch Wildlife through the eyes of a child in the middle of a collapsing marriage, director Paul Dano asks us, very delicately, not to choose sides either.
Adapted by Dano and Zoe Kazan from Richard Ford’s novel, Wildlife tells the story of a family through 14-year-old Joe’s (Ed Oxenbould) eyes in 1960s Montana. The film begins with Joe playing ball with his father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal). They are called inside by his mother, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) for dinner. They eat, Jerry opens a beer, there is homework to be done, dishes to wash, all is good and peacefully mundane. But it all goes downhill when Jerry loses his job for being too friendly, and we find out the family has been moving from city to city in Jerry’s search for a job. His beer drinking starts to look more concerning than just a working-class man cracking open a cold one after work. “They don’t want us to get ahead,” says Jerry to Joe, planting the seed for the underlying criticism of static social mobility that appears throughout the film. Too proud to bag groceries, Jerry leaves to join a group of firefighters to fight the wildfire that’s spreading across the Montana forests, a job that barely pays anything and risks his life, but lets him get away from his family.
After Jerry leaves, Jeanette steps out of her ’60s traditional housewife role. Her discontent with life swims to the surface, as she doesn’t know what it is that she wants but she knows it isn’t what she currently has. Mulligan, in the best performance of her career, plays Jeanette with the uneasiness of a woman trapped in a time and place with no means of moving forward, like the trees that remain after the fire she calls “the standing dead”. It’s a performance that allows the audience to take a breath and see Jeanette as more than a trapped housewife trope waiting to take the blame from our judgmental eyes. “I feel like I need to wake up but don’t know from what or to,” she says to Joe at a diner, and we watch her tiny figure sway like her emotions, with winds coming from every side, as she tries to figure out how to wake up.
And all this happens with Joe there. He stands on the road as his father leaves, sits in the passenger seat as his mother drives, listens to the household from his room, unable to change anything, like a voyeur in his own tragedy. Oxenbould plays him perfectly, desperate and confused, yet resilient. His calm presence doesn’t go away in the midst of his family’s collapse. His expressive face often shows him in thought, like he’s trying to make sense of it all – to find feelings and words for something he’s never experienced before.
Wildlife will be in cinemas in the US on October 19th and in the UK on November 9th.