'Wildlife' is a 1960s-set domestic family drama, flinging its young teen protagonist between a rock and a hard place as he witnesses his parents’ rocky relationship disintegrate during wildfire season in mountainous Montana.
The film centres on Joe Brinson (newcomer Ed Oxenbould) a 14-year-old boy whose unhappily-married parents move to Montana in search of a fresh start. After losing a lucrative job at a golf club, his father Jerry (Gyllenhaal) defiantly signs up for an extended stint away from home fighting forest fires in the nearby mountains, leaving Joe and his wife Jeanette (Mulligan) behind in their small town. Jeanette’s life lights up with new-found independence in the wake of her husband’s departure, finding new work, relationships, and purpose in life – and Joe can only look on as she makes choices that will change their family forever.
'Wildlife' is the directorial debut of actor Paul Dano, known for his strong supporting performances in indie hits Little Miss Sunshine, Prisoners, and Love and Mercy. His directorial style is measured, calm, and unfussy, yielding to the cinematography and the strong lead performances of the central cast, as is often the way with first-time actor-turned-directors. There’s a clear interest in retaining Joe’s point-of-view, with frequent lingering close-ups of our young lead reacting to something before the camera pans slowly over to allow us, the audience, the privilege of his point of view. (It’s not unfair to compare Oxenbould to a younger Paul Dano, with his sallow, sensitive features and looks of studied contemplation, and he shows a similar level of precocious talent.)
While a wonderfully-composed scene midway through shows Joe regarding the raging mountain fires, the main subject of his attention in this film is, in fact, his mother Jeanette, a woman burning up in a very different way. In a strong cast, Carey Mulligan is a particular stand-out, her character the catalyst sparking everything of consequence that happens. Once she relinquishes the tone of terse patience she takes with Jerry at the outset, she gradually wilds out, testing the boundaries of her world one ‘desperation dress’ and cha-cha-cha at a time. It’s interesting too to see a mother like this on screen – she’s often selfish, not particularly family-oriented, and openly nostalgic for her younger years, if not downright immature. Yet Mulligan plays her with nuance and empathy, her performance as measured and careful even as Jeanette becomes more unstable. Even in her most unlikeable moments, Mulligan will imbue Jeanette with a lip-quiver or tilt of her head that reveals the life unlived, unrealised, playing out behind her eyes.
The directorial style and 1960s setting gives 'Wildlife' the feel of an old-style chamber drama, focused on interiority and drama drawn from characters, rather than situations. As such, despite the fiery performances, some may find 'Wildlife' a little slack in plot and pacing. But as a family portrait, 'Wildlife' is well-stoked by the care it takes in presenting its central characters, despite their very human flaws, as fully-formed and relatable individuals.
A promising debut film from Dano, 'Wildlife', like the forest fires that smoulder in the background, largely unseen, is a slow burn: but powered by a powder keg of a performance from Carey Mulligan.