Fourteen-year-old Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould) is a good boy. He does well in school and he respects his parents, who have recently moved the family to Montana. As the narrative of Wildlife unfolds, we learn that it is the latest in a series of moves around the western part of the country. Joe’s father, Jerry (a weary Jake Gyllenhaal), is a golf pro who is sometimes unemployed. His mother, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), has worked as a public-school teacher but is now staying home to take care of her family. It is 1960 — still several years before the feminist movement — so Jerry steers the household as a matter of course. Jeanette is his stalwart cheerleader, although his inability to earn a consistent paycheck and stay in one place obviously grates on her. She is educated and full of ideas, but he tends to wave off her advice as he sips a beer and listens to baseball on the radio. Husband and wife appear worn down by life, despite being in their mid-thirties, while both also seem like overgrown children. Perhaps this is why Joe is preternaturally responsible, well-mannered, and capable of playing his emotions close to the vest as he watches his parents’ marriage disintegrate.
Wildlife, based on the 1990 novel by Richard Ford, is actor Paul Dano’s debut feature as writer and director. It is an old-fashioned family drama made without much flash, save for stunning, sit-up-in-your-seat cinematography by Diego García. Performances are uniformly — and chillingly — excellent. Mulligan plays Jeanette as a slow-burning mess. It’s difficult to tell, from one moment to the next, if she’s just going through a hard time or if she’s losing her mind.
As Joe, Oxenbould is the archetypal dutiful son who is suddenly old enough to be the recipient of far too much information about his parents’ inner lives. After Jerry leaves the family to go fight a wildfire, we see the weight of fear and confusion mount in Joe’s eyes. He’s not trying to keep his parents together so much as to make sure he has something to eat for dinner. His parents love him, but they don’t know what they’re doing. Late in the movie, when Joe walks into a police station thinking he will find his father there, you half expect him to turn himself over as a ward of the state. Wildlife takes place before divorce was commonplace, before a kid like Joe might intuit where all the discord might be headed. All he knows is that whatever safety “home” once represented is disappearing under his feet. — Jennifer Levin
Rated PG-13. 104 minutes. Center for Contemporary Arts; Violet Crown. See review;
Nuclear family: Ed Oxenbould, Carey Mulligan, and Jake Gyllenhaal