As they say, whenever there is fire, someone is bound to get burned. That logic certainly applies to the film Wildlife, which depicts people playing with fire whether it’s in the literal or metaphorical sense. However, Wildlife is a fiery demonstration of a crumbling marriage that is rather meditative. It works as a slow burn that builds up until the final act where the fire really starts to grow.
Where the film’s depiction of fire becomes literal is a point in the beginning where Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal), a golf pro, decides to leave his wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and 14-year old son Joe (Ex Oxenbould) to take a low paying job fighting forest fires. Feeling physically and emotionally abandoned, Jeanette decides to have an affair with a local car dealer named Warren Miller (Bill Camp). But her affair begins to take a toll on Joe who attempts to navigate his path in life on his own.
Because of how he observes his parents undergoing marital stress, Joe ends up being an audience cipher and he is brilliantly played by Ed Oxenbould. Despite his performance being mostly reserved and astute, Oxenbould is still quite effective and is likely to be the film’s unsung hero given the name recognition of his co-stars.
Speaking of which, they are both in top form as the main couple. Carey Mulligan manages to do the best performance of her career as Jeanette, a broken housewife and is incredibly bewitching and quietly devastating. Mulligan has proven herself to be a master at facial storytelling, and she certainly lets her eyes capture her character’s feelings of frustration and unfulfillment, along with her yearning for something more than her mundane lifestyle. Sometimes, her eyes will switch from spiteful to sympathetic within the same sequence. I know Best Actress is a crowded field this year, but Mulligan should be a strong factor in this Oscar race.
Of course, credit should also go to Jake Gyllenhaal as Jeanette’s deadbeat husband Jerry. He doesn’t have as much screen time as Mulligan or Oxenbould, but he is still absolutely flawless. Gyllenhaal plays Jerry as someone who is going through the motions like her wife and trying to be a good man without shying away from his selfish petulance which erupts out of him like he’s a ticking time bomb.
As you can tell by the use of words like “selfish” or “unfulfilled,” Jerry and Jeanette seem like pretty selfish people. However, that’s because parents can be selfish, too. We like to believe that because parents teach us to go down the right path, they would try to be righteous as well. On the contrary, they have a tendency to be hypocritical. It doesn’t make them bad people nor does it mean they feel neglectful of their children’s wants and needs. It’s just that while they have a responsibility to tend to their children, they have their wants and needs that they want to fulfill.
In Jeanette’s case, she wants to be more than just a housewife who’s making enough just to get by. She’s also unsatisfied with the town she lives in, and the brilliant cinematography by Diego Garcia certainly makes her environment feel like a bleak, colorless prison. The constant sound of winds blowing that remains omnipresent only adds to the vacant atmosphere that envelops her community.
Thanks to the restraint of director / co-writer Paul Dano, the film’s Montana town feels like its own character since he lets its emptiness serve as a slight catalyst for the motivations of our main protagonists. Also, while Mulligan and Gyllenhaal successfully bring their characters to life, kudos to both Dano and his co-writer / partner Zoe Kazan for their screenplay, which doesn’t soften their characters’ selfish qualities.
The harsh realization of the unintentional neglect which parents enact on their children makes Wildlife an emotional gut punch. Because the film lacks a grandiose atmosphere and opts for a quiet setting without a bombastic score or explosive acting moments, it doesn’t hit the heart until later on. But it still has a lasting effect regardless. Due to its brilliantly textured screenplay and perfectly realized performances by its lead actors, Wildlife is excruciatingly honest yet necessarily confrontational.