In a revealing moment at the Q&A for Wildlife following its premiere at the New York Film Festival, co-screenwriter Zoe Kazan disclosed that she and her writing partner/director Paul Dano resisted pressure to change the setting of the film to the present day to make the production easier. She held that, in order to faithfully adapt Richard Ford’s novel for the big screen, the story could not exist outside the patriarchal milieu of 1960. It’s for the best that Dano and Kazan did not allow the practicalities of filmmaking commerce to overpower the honesty of filmmaking artistry. De-contextualizing a story with such specific cultural grounding would mean changing its very nature.
Wildlife is situated firmly between two eras, with its characters unknowingly perched on precipice they cannot know. The post-war economic boom has begun to taper off, ushering in a discontent to the masses previously known only to a select group of elites. The problems of scarcity gave way to problems of abundance, and the ennui of prosperity makes all those experiencing it feel as if they have no standing to complain. In 1960, the gloom of the Eisenhower era had taken root deep in the psyche of many American adults, but those seeds of discontent had yet to blossom into the promise of the Kennedy years.
For Dano, the environment his characters inhabit is just that — a backdrop. It’s not a subject in the same way it was for Revolutionary Road, to name another film evoking the same cultural moment in America. This footing in history informs the characters in Wildlife, but Dano never lets it define them. To simply let the mother and father, so soulfully brought to life by Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal, become little more than avatars for generational attitudes would be to rob people of their agency. One of Dano’s many great accomplishments in the film, much of which he accomplished with Kazan at the script level, is exploring the ways in which these characters can serve as both reflections of their era while also bucking against it.
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No one embraces these contradictions better than Mulligan as Jeannette Brinson, the Montanan matriarch with a streak of independency and self-sufficiency she will never let societal norms subjugate. Jeannette seems to have been born free, but everywhere she is in chains. At the beginning of the film, she offers herself casually to a school receptionist as a substitute teacher only to find herself instantly and unceremoniously denied. Jeannette can let that particular instance slide since it’s just supplemental income she seeks. But when her husband, Gyllenhaal’s Jerry, loses his job at the golf course, the casual misogyny becomes a major impediment to the family’s well-being.
Just a smidge too early for second-wave feminism, Jeannette begins to bristle against gender norms in this pinch of financial strife. The inability to provide for her son, Ed Oxenbould’s Joe, in spite of her obvious willingness provides a window for Jeanette to examine a deeper void in her life. She’s intrinsically unfulfilled in her current roles as wife, mother and homemaker, a discontent that quickly crystallizes into resentment and desperation. “If you’ve got a better plan for me, tell me,” Jeannette pleads to Joe at an inflection point in Wildlife. Or perhaps she’s rationalizing. Mulligan rarely lets viewers behind the curtain of her character’s psychology, choosing instead to provide the portrait of a woman whose actions and inactions are the product of many competing impulses. Which really drives her in any given moment is a frustrating mystery for the character but a glorious one for a viewer.
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Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, plays a more straightforward variation on emasculation in a time where manhood was inextricably linked to breadwinning capabilities. That’s not to say he’s ineffective in the role, however. Recent roles have given the actor a chance to play variations on moody and internalized men — Prisoners (2013), Demolition (2015), Stronger (2017) — but never has the shame dripped off him like it does in Wildlife. Gyllenhaal’s stubborn, sullen inertia in the face of his character’s unemployment informs Jerry’s brash decision to reclaim his ego by going off to fight wildfires. Given the choice of facing the music or abandoning his wife and son for months at a time, it’s no surprise he chooses the latter option.
All the while, Joe observes the fracturing of his family unit, unable to stop the slow-moving car wreck in progress because he is but a passenger helplessly strapped in with his parents until the end. Dano shoots the occasional sequence from his vantage point — the firing of Jerry, a crucial indiscretion of Jeannette — but refrains from making Wildlife a film seen through his eyes. Though he does undergo the harrowing journey of realizing the fallibility of his parents, Joe’s arc bows to neither coming-of-age nor loss of innocence tropes.
If Joe were just a stand-in for the audience, then the film might play as tragedy and open up an avenue for pity. What Dano aims for is something trickier: understanding these characters and the forces animating their decisions without necessarily identifying with them. The overcorrection for sentimentality does give Wildlife a bit of a sterile feel, but the deliberate dissatisfaction that Dano allows to permeate through his debut feature provides a fitting complement to the private misery of the film’s characters.
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