The story is simple, maybe even banal. It’s 1960. Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), his wife Jeannette (Carey Mulligan) and their 14-year-old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) settle down in a small town near the Canadian border. They seem to be a pretty normal, rather traditional, family that has found happiness in simple life and conservative family values. First grind appears when the father ignores the fact that his son doesn’t like football as much as he would like him to and becomes maybe not aggressive, but for sure a little bit too firm. The director of “Wildlife”, Paul Dano, slowly and carefully deconstructs the image that he has built in the first scene of the movie and invites darkness into the presented world. The carousel of negative emotions and destructive acts begins to spin up when Jerry loses his job…
Jeannette, who seems to be hiding frustration under the mask of a perfect housewife that has dedicated her life to two men that she loves, finds in new situation a chance for emancipation. She starts a job a swimming teacher, which gives her not only satisfaction, but also – or above all – a promise of different, happier life. The process of her metamorphosis is parallel to Jerry’s self-destruction. The man is too proud to come back to the job that he was fired from and not canny or/and determined enough to get a new one. He turns into a typical movie loser, who finds compensation for his failures in both – drinking and aggression. Gyllenhall is really thrilling in portrait the dangerous state of mind of his character, but I think that it’s Oxenbould who makes this drama truly shocking. The young actor in a role of boy that loses fundaments of the world that he used to know is not only authentic, but also heart-breaking. However, his performance has not much in common with a tear-jerker or soap opera. On the contrary – he is using balanced gestures and précised mimicry to show the process of painful demythologization of the figure of the father – the tragic fall of an exemplar.
What’s important, Jerry is not the only character that reveals his, not necessarily bad, but for sure unperfected, side. When he decides to join the team of men who lead an unequal battle with giant fire that goes on in the boundary forests and leaves the family for at least a couple of weeks, Jeannette doesn’t have enough faith (or love, or both) to wait for happy end, and desperately starts to make true an alternative scenario of her life. She starts a bad romance with her student from swimming classes – Clarence Snow (Darryl Cox), who as rich, lonely, and rather sexist man. What initially might look as an innocent experiment or a form of subconscious revenge on absent husband, transforms into a festival of, more or less pathetic, self-humiliation. Mulligan is absolutely brilliant in showing her character’s tear, her internal conflict between her disgust with Clarence and desperate hope for happiness, safety and support. Her Jeannette is to some extent repulsive (especially when being seen through her son’s perspective), but at the same time hypnotizing and moving. She seems to be a synecdoche of all women of her times who has buried their careers and dreams in the name of patriarchal family and let themselves be persuaded that only men can guarantee them happiness, stability and make their life meaningful.
Jeannette is the main character of the movie. Her actions give “Wildlife” shape and energy, and dynamics, but, what’s interesting: it’s her son’s perspective that remains dominant. Dano’s makes a movie about growing up. Joe, who is experiencing the end of his intimate, private world, has no agency – he remains inherently passive, but it doesn’t mean that changes cannot be observed. He might be helpless, but his experience is real and intense. The director presents him a very mature and sensitive boy, which can be seen in those scenes that he sees both of his parents failing, but neither picks sides, nor justifies their actions. Joe also doesn’t turn back from his mother and father when they show their weaknesses, but clearly understands the fact that people do fail and that failing doesn’t turn them into monsters. Dano’s movie is simple and obvious, but at the same time moving, because the three actors turn this well-known story into a very intimate allegory of love that maybe isn’t eternal and doesn’t forgive everything, but teaches empathy and respect to the others, even when they are the poorest versions of themselves.