Wildlife chronicles the dissolution of a marriage from a particular, stunned vantage point.
At 14, Joe (Ed Oxenbould) has recently moved to Montana with his parents, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and Jerry (Gyllenhaal). There is an edge in the air—they differ on how Joe should handle his homework and whether or not he should join the football team—but the boy believes they’re basically happy. Then his father loses his job and abruptly decides to take work, out of town, fighting wildfires. In response, his mother embarks on a burst of jarring independence. Joe watches all of this in shock—Oxenbould has a heartbreakingly confounded stare—unable to fathom how quickly his little world has fallen apart.
Oxenbould is strong in a deceptively passive part, while Gyllenhaal—in the movie’s most minor role—is even better. (When a Gyllenhaal character smiles, it usually means everything except that he’s happy.) But this is Mulligan’s show. Her risky, raw performance is the life force of an otherwise muted film. Immediately dropping her docile, domestic demeanor the morning after Jerry leaves, she dresses up to go look for a job and drops a bombshell on her dazed son: “You’re wasting your life standing there watching me, sweetheart.” But watching is all that Joe can really do, even as Jeanette pursues a sad affair with a local businessman (Bill Camp, also excellent). In these scenes in particular, Mulligan’s voice and body are brazen and flirtatious while her face flashes between freedom and regret. It’s a stellar turn.
Wildlife is the directorial debut of Paul Dano; the screenplay, adapted from Richard Ford’s book, is by Dano and Zoe Kazan. It’s an extremely confident piece of work, especially in the way it’s willing to leave so many things unexplained. The audience is meant to be as bewildered as Joe, who never quite understands why his parents seem so willing to tear apart their home. Working with cinematographer Diego Garcia (Cemetery of Splendor), Dano also shows a nice eye for composition, often making use of items in the background—a street lamp, say, or a flag on a golf course—to bring balance or add depth to the frame.
One recurring visual motif involves Joe’s part-time job as an assistant at a photography studio, where seemingly solid families come to document their domestic bliss. The film’s ending, which I won’t give away, involves one such photo session. Joe—a perplexed witness for much of the film—finally takes action, becoming a director in a way. The result is a devastating final image, a sad fantasy that Joe tries to create within his camera’s humble, hopeful frame.