Children suffer the most in divorces. They are like innocent bystanders caught in the middle of a war. The powers that be (parents) can potentially land on their feet, but the civilians trapped in the bombed city have little chance of escape. Wildlife brings out the artistic, allegorical side of me. It’s an unapologetically independent film set in the 1960s, centering around a couple in turmoil, played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan. Their son Joe, played by Ed Oxenbould, is witness to almost every wrong turn and obstacle they face, and when Gyllenhaal goes off to fight forest fires (a job that could easily get him killed), he’s left with Mulligan, an unstable housewife looking for a chance at freedom.
Though I’m not familiar with the Robert Ford novel which this film is based off, the choice of a 1960s setting in rural Montana is perfect. 1960 is when America began to slowly change socially, yet it was still an era where people held on tightly to tradition. And in a less populated area of the U.S., that was even more true. As seen in shows like Mad Men (AMC, 2007-2015), it was an era where families would create facades around their problems which were often obvious to other people – especially the children. However, Joe is counter-culture. He picks up on the marital problems right away and refuses to live in ignorance. He forces himself to believe that his father may not come back. He acknowledges that his mother might be seeing another man (and does his best to prevent it). By using Joe’s perspective almost entirely, we the audience are forced to make decisions as he does. We essentially choose the “better” parent of the two, each with inherent flaws.
Since Joe is our “narrator” through this movie spending all the time with his mother, the spotlight shines brightest on Carey Mulligan. Her character, Jeanette, is ultimately trapped by both her own choices and others. She’s sweet on the outside but broken and bitter on the inside, living a life that isn’t her own. Mulligan acts the part with layers of subtlety and realistic flourishes of insanity. Jeanette definitely has some form of manic depression, but remember, this is the 60s; sweep that under the rug before you’re marginalized or worse, locked away as “crazy.” She desperately looks for a decision that she can make. And while the intent is admirable, Jeanette’s mental state puts her in a position to shame her son for being male, and even flaunt the advances of another man as a trophy. Needless to say, Mulligan’s performance is brilliant.
Gyllenhaal has some stellar moments as well, but then again he hardly ever disappoints, and his screentime is limited to give Mulligan her deserved chance to shine. Ed Oxenbould, though often the silent observer, has impeccable chemistry with both Mulligan and Gyllenhaal; he portrays most of his emotions in profound silence.
To enhance the silence are multiple still shots that almost give the effect of a stage play. When the camera does move, it does so for Joe’s benefit, as the story is all about how his parents affect him. The editing is likewise meticulous, as actor-turned-director Paul Dano is keen to slowly reveal this movie as a ticking time bomb. Each second brings us (and Joe) closer to an eventual explosion where his parents’ decisions will forever change his life. Some of it might be painstakingly slow (as is the trend for many movies nowadays), but the overall effect is a powerhouse of a narrative.
Wildlife is a story we’ve seen before: quarreling parents, a lonely child, and a 1960s setting that critiques the flippancy towards things like sexism and infidelity. However, Wildlife’s rural scenery, forest fire backdrop, and powerful narrative lens gives us a story of bubbling intensity with a complex lead performance from Carey Mulligan.