“Wildlife” feels like the sort of movie Paul Dano would have begged to star in back in his teens.
The “There Will Be Blood” co-star’s adaptation of Richard Ford’s novel captures a marriage falling apart and a doted-on, confided with teen son witnessing all, struggling to hold things together and suffering for it in ways present and we can guess future.
Jake Gyllenhaal is personable, athletic Jerry who has taken on sole “breadwinner” duties in their latest town, Great Falls, Montana. He’s a golf pro, with all that entails in Great Falls, Montana in 1960. He gives lessons, caddys and does course maintenance.
Of course he’s “coaching” 14 year-old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) in the all American game he must take up to make friends at his new school.
Carey Mulligan plays chatty Jeanette, the polished, put-together wife and mother — not working now, but someone who has held a variety of office jobs at other stops along their marriage journey.
We’re not surprised to learn that they met at college. And at the first sign of trouble, we’re less surprised to learn that they’ve been sort of failing their way eastward for years.
Jerry isn’t exactly subservient enough at his golf club job and we see his firing coming before he does. His son witnesses the cause and the effect.
“They just don’t want people like us to get ahead,” Jerry explains, grabbing a six-pack on the way home.
Jeanette’s sunny, upbeat and supportive optimism crashes against Jerry’s embittered sense of being trapped in a place where he’s been shamed. He won’t take the job back (his glad-handing ways made him popular) because “I won’t work for people like that.” And he won’t take any gig just to prop them up.
“I didn’t come to Montana to bag groceries.”
Jeanette’s smiling work-arounds mean she’ll go out and find a job in the interim. And Joe, with schoolwork, pointlessly attempting football and making what could be his first girlfriend (Zoe Margaret Colletti) will find a part-time job, too.
The fissures were there and already starting to crack when Jerry abruptly announces his next gig. He’ll join the crews fighting the distant wildfires that darken their skies and dominate the Great Falls news, a decision Jeanette regards as dangerous, rash, juvenile and pretty much the last straw.
“What kind of man leaves his wife and son in such a lonely place?“
Dano focuses on the trauma of all of this, and how it registers on the face of young Oxenbould (“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day”). The kid even looks like younger Dano, a sensitive child gut-punched by his Dad’s decision and utterly deflated by his mother’s mercenary “A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do” reaction.
Scenes in which Mom brazenly revives her dormant feminine wiles to pursue a rich divorced car dealer/entrepreneur (Bill Camp) are as quietly disturbing as anything Mulligan has played, and I’m seeing this AFTER “Promising Young Woman.”
Gyllenhaal gets across a kind of repressed, depressed haplessness. In an era where men didn’t talk about their problems, Jerry’s reactions are all he knows to do, a pattern set in stone by his upbringing, the unspoken parameters of his marriage and past behavior.
And Oxenbould lets us see what Joe has absorbed from both parents, a kid rooting for his father, whom he desperately misses, trying to smooth things over with his mother when mere guilting her about her desperate, vindictive turn doesn’t work.
At 14, “Wildlife” lets us see the awful lessons that will scar this kid for life.
Dano gets much of this across without giving the son many lines, without fleshing out his school life and the budding friendship/romance that “things at home” are snuffing out.
Yes, “Wildlife” is yet another “broken home” movie where the child acts more like the adult than the adults. But Dano and his cast make this period piece more real and subtly disturbing than many a memoir of the “Glass Castle” and “Hillbilly Elegy” variety.
MPA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material including a sexual situation, brief strong language, and smoking
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould, Zoe Margaret Colletti and Bill Camp.
Credits: Directed by Paul Dano, script by Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan, based on the Paul Ford novel. An IFC release on Netflix.
Running time: 1:45