SET IN 1960s Montana, married couple Jerry and Janette and their son Joe have recently relocated. Though not said, it is implied they left their last home when Jerry lost his job, and it is not the first time this has happened.
Joe is a golf instructor with a chip on his shoulder. Janette is a unhappy home maker. They clearly had Joe at a young age and it feels like they are playing house more than they are a functioning family unit. When Jerry is fired once again he takes it badly, the only job he can get, or his ego will allow, is to fight fires upstate. Feeling abandoned Janette attempts to change her situation.
Directed by actor Paul Dano, Wildlife is an incredibly assured debut. Always an interesting actor, this has been a passion project, and it was written by Dano and his partner Zoe Kazan, and adapted for the big screen from a novel by Richard Ford. Interestingly it is the only Richard Ford book adapted for cinema. Dano channels Terrence Malick here, and more than once I was reminded of Days of Heaven and sometimes even Badlands both visually and in tone. It is a patient, slow, film, that despite the wide open spaces of Montana, feels close and claustrophobic.
"Every time we move it gets colder,” Janette laments with a certain sense of foreboding. Carey Mulligan plays Janette, and I think this is the best thing she has ever done. She has a sadness in her performance, but even more than that, there is anger. The easy performance here would have been the upset, put-upon, wife. Instead, Mulligan makes a much more difficult decision. Jannette is unlikeable, she does not put Joe first at any point. In a way she is selfish but it is understandable. She feels tricked by Jerry - a Willie Loman disguised as Don Draper. It is not the life she wanted for herself and she is looking for a way out.
Joe is played by Ed Oxenbould. He has the blank face of a teenager who does not quite fit in anywhere. He loves his father and feels immense loyalty to his mother. They continually let him down. One particularly difficult scene is when he is brought on a “date” with his mother and a local business man. It is excruciating but at no point melodramatic.
I loved this movie and am looking forward to revisiting it in a few months. Its final shot is one I’ve been thinking about for days. A powerful debut feature.