Following the success of their on-screen partnership in Ruby Sparks, real-life couple Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano have teamed up again to construct something altogether different with Wildlife, a film that tracks the disintegration of a marriage through the eyes of the child caught in the middle. Written and produced by Kazan and Dano, with the latter also taking the helm as director for the first time, the events of the film take place at the beginning of the 1960’s in Great Falls, Montana. Narratively, not much happens and neither of the two adults at the centre of the family is in any way likeable, but the film looks beautiful with Dano and his design team recreating the period with scrupulous authenticity. Furthermore, the performances of the three leads – Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan and young Aussie Ed Oxenbould – make this a compelling, if at times opaque, portrait of a family falling apart at the seams.
When we first meet the Stinson’s, they are a picture of the domestic typicality of the time; Jerry (Gyllenhaal) is the bread winner with a job at the golf club while Jeanette (Mulligan) maintains the house and parents 14-year-old Joe (Oxenbould). However, all is not what it seems and, when Jerry is fired from his position (accused of being too friendly with the customers), we soon learn that the family’s recent arrival in Great Springs comes on the back of several other such relocations as a result of Jerry’s inability to hold down employment for any length of time. However, when a reprieve is granted and Jerry is offered his job back, his refusal leaves Jeanette perplexed, frustrated and resigned to finding work in order to make ends meet. She secures a part-time position as a swimming instructor while Jerry spends more time wallowing than seeking work. It is not surprising then that when Jerry announces he is joining other local men in fighting wildfires raging in the mountains nearby – a mission that is dangerous and pays a pittance – something inside her snaps as she grasps the sad reality of what the future holds for her.
Don’t think for a minute though that Jeanette will win your sympathy because, in her mission to find a better life for herself – which we see through Joe’s eyes – she emerges as a narcissistic opportunist who shows little regard for her son, except when she calls upon him to serve as an accessory and bring some faux respectability to her pursuit of Mr Miller (Bill Camp), a local auto-shop magnate who was one of her swimming students. Despite his sweaty, portly persona, Miller offers the (financial) security that Jeanette seeks because, after all, love is not a luxury she can afford given the precarious fiscal predicament in which Jerry has left her. It is very easy to imagine a young Dano playing Joe, a quiet, pensive, wary and resilient young man who has been all but forgotten by two self-absorbed parents. Joe’s friendship with classmate Ruth-Anne (Zoe Margaret Colletti) brings him some relief from the turmoil at home, but this relationship is not explored in any detail and is pushed aside as the tensions mount upon Jerry’s return.
Given the turmoil that transpires, the happy(ish) ending comes as a surprise with no real consequences for the bad behaviours in which both parents engaged. Sure, it is good to know that Joe seems to have emerged unscathed, but it does leave you wandering what was the point of it all. As an outlet for Dano to hone his skills behind the camera (the composition and framing is exquisite at times) or for the actors to demonstrate their considerable skills, Wildlife is a raging success. It is a beautifully constructed film, but like so much of what appears beautiful on the surface, there is nothing of substance underneath.