The characters who populate the old-timey Westerns I grew up watching always seemed to have one thing on their minds: pushing westward across the wide-open plains, fording raging rapids, surveying sweeping vistas, and carving their way through the treacherous mountains. Manifest destiny, California or bust… Those movies never really show what happens to the dreamers who never make it all the way through to the Pacific, though—the kind of people who end up stranded in the in-between when the wagon breaks down and dysentery sets in.
Longtime actor, first-time director Paul Dano’s uniformly excellent WILDLIFE isn’t set in the time of covered wagons and cholera, but it does follow the fortunes of a stalled-out dreamer and his weary wife and child as they traverse rocky territory in 1960s Montana. It’s the story of a family at a crossroads faced with a difficult decision: Do they continue on together as a unit, weakened and sick, or do they split up and look for help?
WILDLIFE—based off Richard Ford’s 1990 novel of the same name—represents a return to an old-school strain of America independents. It’s the kind of mean, lean hyper-intimate drama that asks a lot of the actors involved; the kind of film that believes in its actors enough to let them do the heavy lifting. And when you’re making this particular type of film, you can’t go wrong casting Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal, both of whom have résumés studded with turns in heart-wrenching period-set character studies like AN EDUCATION (her) and MOONLIGHT MILE (him).
Which isn’t to say the film lacks style and atmosphere: Juxtaposing wide, gorgeous shots of the sprawling Montana landscape with tight, suffocating, often grotesque shots of the sad, solitary figures contained within, Dano and seasoned Mexican cinematographer Diego Garcia only amplify the idea at WILDLIFE’s very core: the idea of being stranded in the middle of nowhere, the enormity of the dreams you once had swallowing you whole.
Alongside Mulligan and Gyllenhaal, 17-year-old Australian actor Ed Oxenbould holds his own as the Joe, a boy of 14 who might just remind you a bit of the characters Dano has played in the past—gangly, awkward, a bit morose, sensitive… He’s the type of quiet, introspective kid who prefers by and large to sit on the sidelines (at home and out in the world) carefully observing, which gets to his father, an extroverted go-getter type who wants Joe to play sports and make friends with the “right” kinds of people—you know, really fit in.
But fitting in is pretty tough when you’re constantly being uprooted and dragged from new school to new school without any say in the matter. Joe Brinson and his mother, Jeanette, have long been captive to the whims of family patriarch Jerry, an impulsive, fast-talking striver who has sweeping ambitions for himself and his family. Jeanette, on the other hand, is introduced to us as the sort of optimistic, supportive backbone of the household—there are plenty of cracks, but until now, she’s been able to paper over them admirably.
When Jerry is fired from his new golf-pro job shortly after relocating the family to Great Falls, it’s like a lit match has been dropped on a pile of dry kindling. His pride severely wounded, an emasculated Jerry leaves retreats to a couch in the living room and abandons the relentless optimism that had propelled him for so long. Instead of looking for a job (he’s deemed the openings Jeanette brings up “beneath him”), he sits and watches static-y TV, consumed by the kind of anxiety that hits you hardest when it’s 3 o’clock in the morning and you’re the only one awake in a house you can no longer afford to live in.
Abandoning faith in the American dream, Jerry temporarily abandons his family in the process, relying on the notion that you’ve got to burn something down to build it back up. Almost literally: He joins the town’s other underemployed men in fighting the wildfires that rage nearby, committing himself to self-annihilation as a means of penance, perhaps envisioning himself rising from the flames a new man once the ashes settle. (Though they’re far apart, in terms of genre, the film makes an ideal companion piece to another excellent 2018 film, ANNIHILATION.)
Back at the home front, however, there’s no easy escape route for Jeanette, a former rodeo sweetheart who’s trapped by, well, being a woman in 1960s Montana. Unable to find consistent work and no longer required to be a wife, she begins to carelessly but purposefully pick at the threadbare seams holding her family together. Soon after Jerry’s ill-advised departure, in fact, she enters into an ill-advised relationship with a grotesque older divorcé in full view of poor Joe, who seems to understand her unhappiness but is far too young to be exposed to such things. Mulligan is fantastic as a desperate, deeply wounded woman at her wit’s end, and it’s a credit to Dano and Kazan that they don’t pull any punches with her character.
And it’s through these indiscretions that Jeanette eventually finds her way out of her combustible marriage. It’s as if the characters had been holding their breath for years—once Jeanette finally makes the difficult (and correct) decision to leave, you immediately sense their body language opening up, their shoulders rising, their foreheads unwrinkle… No longer burdened with upholding some image of what it means to be a family unit, the two can tend to the reality of the situation they’re faced with, becoming better parents to Joe in the process. Jeanette, never happy as a stay-at-home type, moves back to Oregon to return to her teaching career, while the more paternal Jerry somehow buckles down and settles into his new life as a single parent.
The final scene, in which Joe brings his scattered family together to take a family portrait in the studio he works at, feels like the true death of the idealistic ’50s and the old-school social mores of that era. Jeanette and Jerry can barely handle being in the same room, and you can feel the sadness and uncertainty in the quiet, tense glance they share as they sit quietly, an empty stool between them. Their dissolution may have been chaotic and wild, but the regrowth will be careful and measured.