When the film first opens up, a teenager named Joe (Ed Oxenbound) is throwing a football around with his dad, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) in the front yard. They head inside their house for dinner where Joe’s mom, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) asks Joe about his day at school. The family around the dinner table discusses whether Joe should take a harder math class. We learn from this discussion that the family has just moved to this town and Joe is having a hard time making friends. We cut to after dinner where Jeanette is helping Joe with his homework, while Jerry listens to a baseball game and has a beer. Jeanette leaves the table and heads for the kitchen, asking Jerry for help. Joe watches his parents as they flirt back and forth in the kitchen. A satisfying look on Joe’s face tells us that all is well with this family.
We next see the town and that there is a fire going on in the mountains above the town as a Forest Ranger briefs Joe and his classmates on fire safety. We cut to the teenagers sitting in a field as the Forest Ranger points to a map and talks about what is happening with the fire. A fellow classmate, Ruth-Ann (Zoe Margaret Colletti) leans over to Joe and tells him no need to take notes, ‘It’s the same as the bomb drills, if the fire gets to us it will be too late.’
We cut to Jerry, on a golf course, brushing the dirt off a couple of member’s golf shoes as the two men discuss the fire. Jerry’s boss walks up and asks the two men how Jerry is treating them. The boss learns that Jerry played golf with the men and that he won a bunch of money from them on the course. The boss reprimands Jerry about gambling with the clients and offers to buy the men a beer.
We cut to Jeanette at Joe’s school where she is informed by an office worker that the check they wrote has bounced. Jeanette awkwardly explains that they moved and have a new bank, so she will write another check. As she writes the check, Jeanette talks about how much fun it must be to work around young people. The conversation goes badly as the office worker thinks that Jeanette is fishing for a job at the school.
We cut back to the golf course, as Joe is raking a bunker and his dad is watering the green. They discuss the forest fire until Jerry’s boss comes up and asks to talk to Jerry. As Joe continues to rake, he overhears the boss firing Jerry for gambling on the course. Jerry losing his job will have earth-shattering ramifications for Joe and his family, ramifications that the family may never recover from.
‘Wildlife’ is set in small-town America in the 60s where everyone knows everyone else, a place where secrets aren’t easily kept. First-time director Paul Dano, who also co-wrote the script with his longtime girlfriend Zoe Kazan, brings us a wonderful tale of a young teenager who watches as his mother breaks down slowly before his eyes. Jerry, losing his job, goes into a tailspin, causing friction between the married couple. Both Joe and Jeanette are forced to get part-time jobs as Jerry seems to have lost interest in finding a job. When Jerry decides to go out of town and get a low paying job fighting the fires that threaten the town, Jeanette’s actions become more and more bizarre, and Joe has to grow-up fast to deal with his missing father, and a mother whose behavior is inappropriate, especially in front of her own son.
Dano brings us a story that slowly unfolds, building tension throughout the film as we wonder if this family, who seemed happy at the start of the film, can ever recover. The dialogue is crisp and feels incredibly real, especially when Oxenbould as Joe and Mulligan as Jeanette are interacting together. Oxenbould is perfect as the shy teen who just wants his family back together. Oxenbould’s scenes are often heartbreaking as we see his character’s emotions spill out over his face. While Oxenbould is fantastic, this is Mulligan’s film as she portrays a woman who realizes, in her husband’s absence, just how unhappy she is with her life. Mulligan gives us a tour de force performance as Jeanette, who gradually dissipates in front of our eyes. Though he doesn’t have as much screen-time as Mulligan and Oxenbould, Gyllenhaal is up to the task as the husband who runs away from his family to take a dangerous, low-paying job. Gyllenhaal plays Jerry as a man who on the outside is seemingly happy but inside is wound too tight to handle his responsibilities to his family. The film has an outstanding supporting cast, featuring the always reliable Bill Camp as a wealthy older man who takes an interest in Jeanette and Zoe Margaret Colletti as Joe’s one friend who brings the only happiness Joe can find in his world.
Dano uses cinematographer Diego Lang’s lens to capture the essence of this story set in a small town at the foot of huge mountains that are on fire, a fire, like Jerry and Jeanette’s marriage, that could burn down in the blink of an eye. ‘Wildlife’ is a sublime film filled with incredible moments provided by Carey Mulligan and the rest of the impeccable cast.
My Rating: I Would Pay to See it Again
Mike’s rating system from best to worst:
1). I Would Pay to See it Again
2). Full Price
3). Bargain Matinee
5). You Would Have to Pay Me to See it Again