I see you, Paul Dano.
From IFC Films and first-time director Paul Dano (yes, the same Paul Dano who played a man who befriended a farting corpse in Swiss Army Man), Wildlife is a new period piece that maybe isn’t quite as wild as the title suggest.
Or maybe it is, just in a different way then we’re used to, which seems to be one of the film’s overall themes.
Set in the 1960’s, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Jeannette Brinson (Carey Mulligan) just recently made the move out to Great Falls, Montana, along with their teenage son, Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould).
This isn’t the first time the family has had to move to a random, not necessarily glamorous (although the way it’s depicted in the cinematography does make Great Falls look very beautiful) city. Jerry has been down-on-his-luck for some time now and has had to relocate several times to find work.
The work usually is even less glamorous than the cities they find themselves in, too. This time, Jerry is nothing more than a golf pro at a local country club, meaning he’s just rubbing off the shoes of people who are more wealthy than he could ever dream to be.
Upon getting fired from even that job, Jerry quickly begins to spiral into a midlife crisis.
Then, he gets an idea. Well, maybe not so much an idea as an opportunity that presented itself to him. The Montana government is offering $1 an hour — which, even in the 1960s, was absolutely nothing — to anyone willing to go fight a raging forest fire in the nearby mountains.
Why not, Jerry figures. It’ll keep him busy, at least, and it’s not like he has a whole bunch of other commitments right now.
Jeannette doesn’t feel the same way. She’s always stuck with Jerry through hell or high water, gladly playing whatever role that he wants her to satisfy. And now he’s just straight up abandoning the family, for no good reason? That doesn’t sit right with her. That doesn’t sit right with her at all.
Which is how Warren Miller (Bill Camp), a wealthy car dealer who lives up the street, comes on the scene — a scene somewhat reminiscent of The Great Gatsby in which you can probably fill-in-the-blanks of.
Through it all, Joe is just kind of watching and taking in the whole thing. Sure, he might only be fourteen years old, but he’s wiser than people give him credit for as he’s buckled in for this journey alongside everyone else.
That, sadly, is one of the biggest problems with Wildlife. Jerry is an interesting character who is going through a lot. Jeannette is also an interesting character who is also going through a lot. Together, the two of them make a complicated drama that says a lot about the family structure of the 1960’s, which is helped along with some great performances from Gyllenhaal and Mulligan.
But Joe? Joe is not all that interesting of a character. Yes, he’s got a couple small sub-stories of his own — one about his new job as a photographer, another about a girl he’s hanging out with in class (which ultimately goes nowhere) — but, for the most part, he’s just sitting around and watching everyone else talk.
Which wouldn’t be as big of a problem if Wildlife didn’t choose to focus in on him so heavily.
Dano might have chosen to do so purposefully as Joe was meant to be the eyes and ears of the audience — there’s even a scene where Jeannette says something along the lines of, “Joe is a common name. Anybody could be a Joe” — but there’s still a way to make that kind of character interesting.
Take Mid90s, for example. It's a movie about 90’s skate culture shown through the eyes of a young boy who is, once again, supposed to be the eyes and ears of the audience. Even if that may be the case, Stevie still has his own battles to fight and challenges to overcome throughout the movie, giving us an actual sense of attachment to him.
Point is that just because we’re seeing things through someone’s eyes, it doesn’t mean that’s all they have to be. Unfortunately, Wildlife doesn’t take this to heart and Joe winds up being somewhat of a wet blanket for most of the runtime.
It really can’t be overstated, though, just how good Gyllenhaal and Mulligan are in this movie. It’s slightly frustrating how little the story focuses on Gyllenhaal after he goes off to fight fires (even though it does give Mulligan her own time to shine), but the moments when the two of them are on screen together — whether they’re arguing, laughing or just sharing a look that still carries a weight of importance — are easily the best moments in Wildlife.
Ultimately, it comes down to whether or not Wildlife is your kind of movie. It’s a slow-moving drama that isn’t necessarily concerned with being instantly accessible to everyone. Yes, there’s a point to be made in the film, but it’s going to take its time getting there and it doesn’t really care if you stick around or not.
Some will love that. Others will be bored. Personally, I fell somewhere in the middle. There were moments that I really liked, and there were other long periods of time where Wildlife felt pretty dull.
That’s okay, though, because I’ve always strongly believed that not every movie has to be for every person. All the weird, twisted horror movies out there like Cam or Hereditary might be right up my ally, but won’t be for other people. Wildlife, no doubt, is made for a certain audience and that audience is going to eat it up — just don’t expect it to play well to anyone outside of that audience, except maybe in terms of the performances in here.
Watch the trailer for Wildlife here and then let us know, in the comments below, what you thought of the movie!