The decline of the nuclear family, as portrayed in Wildlife, is not a rapid revolution. It is a slow, painful transition that chokes each of its characters thoroughly before they’re allowed to breathe again. It is this visceral sensation which lingers as the main strength of director Paul Dano’s debut feature, but is also perhaps the root of its weakness, as it loses so much of its breath under its choking grasp, that it can’t seem to quite coherently put together what it’s trying to say.
The film, set in 1960, involves teenager, Joe (Ed Oxenbould), moving to Montana Falls, an isolated American town overseen by mountains, with his parents Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Jeanette (Carey Mulligan). After his father is fired from his comfortable job on a golf course for being ‘too personable’ and decides to run away to a job fighting fires in the nearby mountains, Joe watches his family unit disintegrate into feud and infidelity. All three family members are superbly represented by their respective cast member, each slowly unravelling their insecurities and flaws at a delicate pace. Mulligan and Oxenbould particularly stand out for giving performances that are powerful when they need to be, but often played with a great deal of restraint.
“All three family members are superbly represented by their respective cast member, each slowly unravelling their insecurities and flaws at a delicate pace”
The confrontations between the pair are at their most tense and raw in the silent moments, where neither character can quite articulate their emotions to the other, and seem to be desperately searching the scene for ways to do so. Oxenbould’s talent for this kind of scene particularly comes to the fray early on when he reveals to his father he doesn’t really enjoy playing football. Though it’s played casually, the way in which Joe is clearly aware of his father’s confusion, is one of the film’s most memorably painful moments. It’s also a showcase for Dano’s ability to let the emotion of the scene come from the subtle tensions of the actors than any showy dialogue.
Exchanges like these are the film’s make up, and the drive of its narrative. It is vitally important this film is set in the 1960s, as it seems to be a challenge to every conceived notion of what a traditional American family unit should be according to the prior two decades. It is no coincidence that the film opens with a shot of Joe and his father playing football in the garden together, which is soon undercut by the previously mentioned exchange. The family are trying to conform to the standards of the previous decade, but due to the changing tides of time, it perhaps isn’t possible. There is constant talk of the oncoming smoke from the fires in the mountain, creating the sense that an apocalyptic exodus of ashes is coming to slowly cleanse the town. This is a place that’s about to be overturned, and there’s a distinct sense of fear there. Jerry, with his wounded pride, simultaneously runs away and attempts to fight the fire, but in doing so, only aids in the process of his family falling apart.
“Whilst it boldly takes apart traditional nuclear family values, it doesn’t seem to quite know what to do with the pieces afterwards”
Falling apart along with the family at points, however, is the film’s sense of direction. Though it expertly creates a sensation of unease at the right moments, I couldn’t help flinching at the way it handled certain issues surrounding Jeanette. Mulligan always shines and creates a convincing character, but the way she instantly seems to fall apart once her husband has left the picture wasn’t something that I felt sat comfortably with myself or the trajectory of the film. The 60s were the beginning of a time where the family unit was deconstructed from a female perspective, the cusp of second wave feminism. Watching the unit disintegrate, and the mother become a broken alcoholic, seems like a rather underwhelming and clichéd approach that flies in the face of the revolution that was happening in that era. Though I don’t wish to spoil the film, I felt there were ways this narrative could have been preserved and handled less clumsily, and I couldn’t help leaving the cinema with a slightly bad taste in my mouth because of it.
Incidentally, what the film is trying to say about where the family should go isn’t entirely clear either. Whilst it boldly takes apart traditional nuclear family values, it doesn’t seem to quite know what to do with the pieces afterwards. We go through the trauma of troubled adolescence with Joe, but I’m not sure we experience the same eventual lessons and learning curve that he does. Because of Oxenbould’s beautifully restrained performance, we really do feel his pain and confusion, but due to the material’s lack of focus, we’re not entirely sure how he deals with it later on.
Beats of Wildlife are wonderfully understated character drama, set within a beautifully cinematic backdrop of a town surrounded by mountains and flames. Though Dano always assures this tone is consistent, the narrative itself wavers. When looked at holistically, the film leaves one questioning what it was actually trying to say, in a way seems confused rather than deliberately ambiguous. With that in mind though, Wildlife is still an impressive exercise in atmosphere. There’s a distinct blend of love and discomfort that makes you appreciate, and be a little terrified, of the relationships you have with your loved ones. I just wish such an impactful piece also knew what to do with this power.
Screening courtesy of the Film Distributors’ Association.