Wildlife (CIFF 2018)

review by Jim Laczkowski

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Watching Wildlife, the directorial debut of actor Paul Dano, it was hard not to immediately place myself on-screen in the role of the perplexed teenager watching his parents act out in different ways. Dano and co-writer Zoe Kazan captured a lot of familiar tension that either I’ve experienced or I’ve witnessed, which in of itself makes for a difficult viewing. That being said, there is no denying the great writing and great acting on display from such a reliable ensemble. I just had a hard time watching these complex characters experience and externalize their neurosis because it felt so authentic, and true to my own adolescence.

Without getting too personal, it’s safe to say that I’ve seen a father withdrawn and a mother act out with intensity towards an uncertain future. Circumstances aside, I knew my parents were flawed, fallible and beautifully human around the age of 12. That’s also when I began to experience depression and anxiety for the first time. I remember hiding away in order to not attend school and even calling in to the school as a parent to say that I wasn’t feeling well. (To this day I’m still surprised that the school secretary didn’t question the sound of my voice). Movies that explore this kind of character fragility immediately take hold of me and rarely let go. I would easily say that there are better versions of this material that range from The Ice Storm to Far From Heaven to several works by Mike Leigh in which families fall apart for any number of reasons. Wildlife is special in its own right due to the level of talent involved, as we discover there are great depths and complexities to be mined within the apprehensions of mother, father and son.

The choice to make the son the only child of the family is also a brave component, since we’re mainly focused on his responses to what’s taking place. He doesn’t have a sibling or a mentor to turn to, though he has a part-time job and an outlet to express himself through. Vulnerable son Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould) stares agaze with expressive eyes at events encompassing him that he cannot much alter. These events involve an upheaval of stability. He is caught between intense expression from his own mother, Jeanette Brinson (Carey Mulligan), a woman who is only twenty years older than her son, and the affection he harbors for his dad, Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal), who practices tossing the football around and encourages his son to play the game in high school. Dad suddenly loses his job for crossing boundaries or being “too kind” which sends him in a tailspin of identity crisis. He then makes the choice to take a job fighting fires in the Montana mountains, which causes Jeanette to question whether or not the marriage is worth saving. This ultimately leads to a revelation that maybe she should pursue a man that is more attentive and can be a better provider, which I think, again, is relatable despite the deception that’s involved. A deception that Joe is uncomfortable with.

What really worked for me that also hit home was the intense personal expression, portrayed with unwavering cruelty at times by one of my favorite actresses working today. From the moment I saw Carey Mulligan in An Education, I knew she would continue to go on to accomplish great performances consistently. She exhibited so much talent with another complicated character for her debut and now has worked even more majestically as a distraught, unhinged mother. She seems to have good intentions but also neglects her son’s wants and desires to the point of being oblivious. One has to commend the screenwriters for not letting her off easy or too sympathetic. Yet, when she does break down with reckless honesty, Mulligan manages to let the audience come to terms with her actions rather than demonize her. Though Gyllenhaal is not on screen as much, he does bring a lot of bruised subtlety to a man who is lost and unsure of the future. It’s not so much that he’s lazy, though we initially think that might be the case, it’s that he too is experiencing some kind of malaise that is hard to navigate through. He mainly internalizes, up until a point, while Mulligan almost haphazardly embraces selfishness that is both compelling and perhaps a bit punishing. I believe it’s been brought up in interviews that even one viewer stood up and called her character a cruel bitch or something along those lines. But she is layered, complicated and anything but fathomable in a way that I think is worth a lot of praise. You can’t immediately put these characters into a box because they feel achingly human, particularly when they are being nasty and impulsive.

Wildlife is gorgeously shot and felt right in time with other great directors like Kelly Reichardt, who know precisely how to capture the pacific northwest. It’s often gray, cold and overcast, but still inviting. Perhaps the metaphor of a wildfire can be a little tired in being representative of the relationships here but I thought the scenery stood out to capture a place and time we normally don’t get to see. There’s even a moment where mother and son skip school to see where dad decided to run off to, and allows for some very memorable moments and intimacy. Dano shows a lot of skill and promise here with his debut, with attention to detail and grounded characters that have no qualms with being unlikable in a way that never feels forced. The teenage son is played so gently and earnestly by Oxenbould, a calm, conscientious actor that may or may not be Dano’s alter-ego to some degree. I wouldn’t be surprised if this story is loosely autobiographical in ways that echo what Sarah Polley ultimately said about her own mother’s struggles in the masterful Take This Waltz. How I could also forget the reliable, ubiquitous Bill Camp, who may or may not be who he seems (keep an eye out for a wide shot during a pivotal moment). I truly love great actors doing great work and Wildlife allows for that in droves. Again, this is a story done many times before with hints of Cassavetes or other storytellers that relied on strong family dramas that were beautifully complicated and acted. For me, Wildlife worked from the start and reminded me of a fragile, difficult time in my own life, involving my own parents. To watch someone like Mulligan capture that fragility in a way that feels refreshing and painful, is reason alone to make this a must-see. Those looking for a fully dimensional female character can make this one a priority in particular. Huge props to both Kazan and Dano for not making this a pleasant experience, but an honest and emotionally viable one.  

Screened as part of the 54th Chicago International Film Festival

Footnote: as a long-time fan of Mulligan’s, it was delightful to see her discuss the film and her character at length during the Q&A. this was quite possibly the highlight for me of the entire festival, along with seeing William Friedkin accept a lifetime achievement award the night before.