Warning: This review contains mild spoilers for Wildlife.
Everyone in Wildlife is waiting for it to snow.
For the small town of Great Falls, Montana, the snow means an end to the wildfires raging just outside their mountain borders. For 14-year-old Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould — who could be Dax Shepard’s long lost son), it means his dad (Jake Gyllenhaal) can come home from his harebrained career scheme to go off and fight said fires. And that in turn means that maybe his mom, Jeannette (Carey Mulligan), will stop acting so strangely, carrying on an affair with another man in plain sight. The snow means everything can get back to normal.
But of course, that’s not going to happen.
Actor Paul Dano’s directorial debut (which he co-wrote with his partner, actress and playwright Zoe Kazan) is a complex, deep dive into the psyche of a broken family in an era where the veneer of happiness is prized above all. Adapted from a novel by Richard Ford, the story takes place in 1960, before that decade’s cultural revolution ushered in hippies, free love and The Beatles. The opening shot, of Joe and Jerry playfully tossing around a football on the pristine lawn of their one-story home, feels like an outtake from Leave It To Beaver, the picture-perfect image of the all-American family.
But the reality is in fact quite different.
Jerry is a big dreamer who feels he’s been dealt a rough hand, and is always looking for that one opportunity to get back on track. It’s in the pursuit of such a twist of fate that he moved his family to Montana –but that too, turns out to be a dead end when he gets fired from his job as a golf pro for being “too personable.” (Actually, it’s because he keeps betting on games with members, but Jerry would never see it that way.) Aimless once again, he looks towards the heavens, in this case the mountain tops where fires have been raging for weeks with no end in sight. Watching him turn the dial to try to improve the grainy image on the Brinsons’ busted TV, you can practically see a bulb go off in Jerry’s head — of course! This is what he has to do!
This is also where pleasant smiling Jeanette, who has been stoically giving part-time swimming lessons at the YMCA to help ease the financial strain, snaps. He wants to leave his family and potentially go burn up in a fire in the pursuit of self-satisfaction? Fine. She’ll do the same.
And thus, poor Joe finds himself smack in the middle of a conflict between two people who have zero sense of boundaries, and use him as a personal sounding board for their inner thoughts, anxieties, and indiscretions.
With Jerry gone, Jeanette sets her sights on Warren Miller (Bill Camp) a successful businessman whose been taking swimming lessons from her. This would feel cliche, were it not for Mulligan’s delicate (and slightly manic) portrayal of a woman on the brink, dissatisfied with herself, her son, and her life. Her affair feels as much a desperate attempt at self-preservation as it does revenge. What choices does a single mother have in middle of nowhere, 1960? This might be her only chance at a do-over, at righting the course she finds herself on, with no respite in sight. She wants more than a man, sure — but what does that look like to someone who has never dared to imagine it?
Gyllenhaal, for his part, infuses Jerry with a streak of violent pride and a lowkey dependence on bee. Still, he’s not quite the typical, repressed white man of the era. Before leaving to follow his firefighter calling, he asks for a kiss goodbye from his son, reminding him that “men can love each other too.” He’s proud of the boy he’s raising, and doesn’t quite understand why his wife isn’t content with her lot in life.
As Joe, Oxenbould is a great foil for his narcissistic, self-absorbed parents. He’s open, absorbing their pain without guile until he finally realizes he, too has to self-protect if he’s to make it out of this situation unharmed. Every child has a moment where they realize their parents are flawed people, and for Joe, that time is now.
Dano’s shots are beautifully composed, emphasizing the cold, bare landscape that lies beneath mountains that are quite literally on fire. A moment where Jeanette lets Joe play hooky to show him what his father has left them for — a searing blaze that you hear crackling, spreading death and destruction, long before you actually see it — is made all the more powerful by its sparseness. Dano knows the power of slow buildup, and uses it to great effect.
The final scene, in which Joe asks parents to take a family photograph all together, is silent, an almost perfect snapshot of these characters’ arc. The snow eventually came, but nothing will be normal again.