Paul Dano’s directorial debut Wildlife lands not with a thud but a slow caress, to be inhaled and ruminated on, its stagnant images billowing into your lungs, giving kudos to the fact that his switch from acting (There Will Be Blood, Prisoners) to directing has been made with a precision and ease.
How many films about the fragile veneer of 1950s/60s Americana, the breakdown of the nuclear family and the diminishment of the American spirit/American dream do we need? Probably none, but I am glad that this one exists. The slowness of the camera excavates the humanity underneath the Americana, where Jeannette (Mulligan), Jerry (Gyllenhaal) and Joe (Ed Oxenbould )are the perfect nuclear family, bred to perfection, recently settled in Montana in the early 60s.
When Jerry, a golf pro, loses his menial job at the country club (a pattern, we come to realise), Mulligan’s smile falters, but is quickly plastered back on, a housewife that has learnt to make all of the right sounds and say the comforting things. Mulligan’s smile slips lower and lower, a Barbie model of Stepford perfection frozen with paralysis, until, at least, shuddering through, her real self, announced with a growling resentment.
Montana as a backdrop is a looking-glass, reflecting back at all three players the isolation and loneliness they all feel. Miles of country road give way to the futility of a blazing forest fire, a fire that Jerry volunteers to leave his family and help out, without vouching with Jeanette first, the first betrayal that reveals the layers of ugliness buried deep. Just as the work to put out the fire is almost a symbolic exercise in futile masculinity, so too, can Jeanette see that, her own life, absent of a husband, is meaningless-without the support of a man, as a single mother in the bell jar of post-war America.
The solemn figure at the root of this marital tragedy of perfection is Joe, who ends up absorbing the selfishness of his parents, whom, despite their negligence, all appear empathetic, victims of their time and fate. Oxenbould plays Joe with a maturity that isn’t sentimental or to be pitied, but a quiet sadness, the new ‘Man of the House’. With her husband gone fighting a fire that is more symbolic than literal, Joe is thrust into his mother’s world as more of a lover/parental type than son, with a cycle of fighting, doors slammed in faces and midnight rendezvous with Mr. Miller (Bill Camp).
One particular scene in a diner stands out, with Jeanette talking to Joe more as equals than mother/son, startling in her frank honesty.What is left is the magic that can bubble up when passivity is allowed, when stillness takes place, with an ending that is moving in how little it says or neatly resolves anything.