Joe Brinson’s family has just recently moved to Montana but his dad’s already out of work. You can tell it’s 1960 because father and son play football in belted khakis with their perfectly-pressed polo shirts neatly tucked in. Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal) has a lot of pride and believes he’s “just too well-liked.” Jeanette Brinson (Carey Mulligan) swallows whatever disappointment she feels with her husband out of work again after yet another move to a place she doesn’t want to be, and still manages to ask politely for his permission to find work herself. Joe goes to work too, part-time, as his father slides into depression. But when Jerry finally gets off the couch and goes to work, Jeanette finally lets her anger erupt. He’s going to fight the massive forest fires for a buck an hour, and she doesn’t think that’s worth risking his life for. When he goes anyway, the crack in their marriage fractures perhaps irreparably, and Jeanette goes off the rails.
Wildlife is a movie about people on the brink. The Brinson family are on the brink of financial ruin. Jerry and Jeanette are on the brink of divorce. With fires ever raging, the whole town’s on the brink of disaster. In 1960, the whole country’s on the brink of a sexual revolution, and women’s lib. But they’re not there yet. It’s shameful that Jeanette has to work instead of staying home with her son (who is 14 and never home). And they clearly don’t know how to do divorce; they forget the part about telling each other, and not committing adultery in front of the children. It’s a crazy time to be alive!
Paul Dano directed and co-wrote (with partner Zoe Kazan) Wildlife and the love and care show up on film, but he somehow holds back from showing us all the fancy tricks he can do, flexing his muscle with restraint instead. It’s impressive.
And given his pedigree I suppose it’s unsurprising how great he is with his cast. Carey Mulligan, to my mind, turns out one great performance after another, but this still might be my favourite. It’s almost certainly the most complex. Jeanette is a woman ahead of her time. Her agency is startling, her behaviour a direct challenge to the values of 1960. The fact that her son (Ed Oxenbould) is a direct witness to her wantonness is often challenging, but Mulligan makes sure that Jeanette is given a humane treatment, while the script kindly paints the couple without heroes or villains – just two people forced to flaunt and rewrite the rules. It’s a sympathetic family portrait, if not quite an intimate one (we’re often at an emotional remove). And sometimes the story loses steam, but damn if Mulligan doesn’t just keep pulling me back in. All eyes on her.