Richard Ford’s 1990 novel Wildlife begins with this arresting sentence: “In the fall of 1960, when I was sixteen and my father was for a time not working, my mother met a man named Warren Miller and fell in love with him.” It’s a piece of personal history reported in language that at first seems too straightforward and cleanly carpentered to hide anything. But the second time you read it, you may notice the slightly too restrained, pain-concealing, papered-over quality of “for a time not working.” Then you realize that the whole statement, as it slides toward its end, is an unnervingly calm account of a bomb exploding. Wildlife is an assessment of that catastrophe, and a portrait of its survivors.
You will not hear Ford’s sentence anywhere in Paul Dano’s astonishingly assured film adaptation. Among the many achievements of his hushed and agonizing directorial debut, one of the strongest first films by an American director in recent years, is that, unlike so many movies based on literary novels told in the first person, Wildlife chooses to forgo voice-over narration and the safety and detachment that come with it. It finds its own intrinsically cinematic means to tell the story of the Brinsons, a family of three in Great Falls, Montana, that’s about to come undone. The narrative that unfolds is implicitly based on the memories and experiences of Joe, the quiet, accommodating, still unformed teenage son of Jerry and Jeanette, two restless people who are about to discover that whatever has held them together for sixteen or so years is no longer enough. But Dano and his cowriter, Zoe Kazan, decline to give us the reassurance of retrospection. In the movie, there is no settled adult version of Joe to mediate this story for us from a distance of decades. For Wildlife’s three main characters, there exist only the fragile present and the very near future, which seems like a cliff’s edge over which they’re all about to tumble.
“What’s outdoors is both ridiculously vast—it is Montana, after all—and threateningly near, just outside the windows that seem somehow too close to the world to afford sufficient privacy.”
The film’s surface is painstakingly composed, but even in the early scenes, there’s a sense of something impalpable impending, of the unsunny Northwest sky beginning to lower, a feeling that the Brinsons are about to find themselves overmatched. But by what? Themselves, as it turns out. Wildlife is a family drama, a coming-of-age narrative, a portrait of the midcentury American dream giving way to the American reality, and, at its grimmest, a quiet horror story in which nobody is who they first appear to be. It begins with an almost Norman Rockwell–like image of Jerry and Joe playing football in front of their house. But something, already, is not right. The yard is a little scrubby, Joe seems to be letting his father win, the light is dimming, and when Jerry and Joe briefly disappear behind the house, reemerging a few seconds later, Dano doesn’t follow them, but waits, still and steady, quietly interrogating the scene, asking us to do the same. The beat lasts just long enough for us to sense, without even realizing it, that the Brinsons are not the stereotypical happy family of the era; they’re people who know what that family is supposed to look like and are struggling to imitate it. And although Joe doesn’t realize it yet, the effort is beginning to show.
The stillness of Dano’s camera throughout the movie—working with cinematographer Diego García, he almost never pans or pushes in unless it’s specifically motivated—derives in part from the style of certain Asian films he admires. Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (2000) and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Still Walking (2008) were influences, and so was the work of Yasujiro Ozu; if you’ve seen his 1951 film Early Summer, you may find Wildlife’s wistful and complex final image particularly resonant. Dano’s reverence for Ozu’s work is manifest in his low-angle interior shots, where he positions his camera as if a silent, observant guest is in the room with the Brinsons. But his shooting style is never simply an homage; it’s always thoughtfully organic to the story he’s telling. We watch Jerry, Jeanette, and Joe play out their complicated dynamic in a space that, tellingly, never seems big enough for all of them. In Wildlife, what’s outdoors is both ridiculously vast—it is Montana, after all—and threateningly near, just outside the windows that seem somehow too close to the world to afford sufficient privacy. But the inside of the Brinson home is confining, a place where people almost can’t help but stumble over one another. It’s not inviting, not a sanctuary, but a somewhat impersonal space that the family occupies without ever seeming fully rooted there (they’re new arrivals in the town). They rarely turn on the lamps; the light never feels exactly right. It has the barren, impersonal atmosphere of a starter home—or, as it turns out, a home for people who are ending things.
In the first half hour of Wildlife, it’s not yet clear what form the trouble will take, only that it’s coming. Jerry, played by Jake Gyllenhaal in one of his finest performances, looks haunted from the start: He’s a smiling, can-do, foursquare guy whom people seem to like, but he soon loses his job after being told he is “overstepping boundaries with the customers”; despite the Dale Carnegie–style advice he has for his son, who’s finding it difficult to make friends, we sense that this isn’t the first time he has struggled to understand where the lines are and what the right tone to hit is. He’s only in his midthirties, but Gyllenhaal and Dano both understand that “midthirties” in 1960 didn’t mean what it does today; Jerry already looks worn and a little haggard, past his peak and still hunting for a big win. And Jeanette, played by Carey Mulligan with utterly unsentimental integrity, is outwardly a loyal, concerned wife and mother who helps her son with homework while the man of the house relaxes with a beer, but the facade is cracking: She’s restless, furious with her feckless husband, and still young enough not to have lost touch with her own needs and desires, and to chafe against the courtesies and restrictions of a world she finds stultifying. “I’m thirty-four,” she tells her son at one point, quickly adding, “Does that seem like the wrong age?” It’s a question she’s simultaneously asking herself.
Wildlife hints at Jerry and Jeanette’s split with a playful glimpse of a double bill at the town’s local movie house: North to Alaska, a film about devil-may-care men running off to test themselves against nature, as Jerry does, and BUtterfield 8, a movie in which a woman is punished, with ferocious Production Code–era moralizing, for her sexual appetite. But when Jerry leaves to fight the forest fires that are rampaging in the mountains outside town, and Jeanette drifts toward Warren, a student of hers at the pool where she has started giving swimming lessons, Dano moves in even closer to Joe’s perspective, doing exquisitely sensitive work with the young Australian actor Ed Oxenbould to create a type of teenage character we almost never see in movies: a sweet, recessive, responsible boy who is frozen (it’s no accident that the film feels as if it shifts into deep winter when everything goes bad) with shock and fear at what’s happening to his parents, both of whom are acting like the heedless adolescent he’s not allowed to be. The movie climaxes with an act of self-destruction on Jerry’s part that we’re almost relieved isn’t worse but that’s preceded by just as reckless a move by Jeanette, an intoxicated dance that pulls us in close to her son as he bears anguished witness to her loss of propriety. On his face, we see the dawn of comprehension that is an essential part of becoming an adult—an understanding of his parents as separate, deeply flawed human beings, and a grasping of how easily precious things can be thrown away or destroyed.
“The film spends a lot of time letting us look at the characters when they’re not taking action, when they’re at a loss for what to do with themselves or each other.”
Wildlife is a watchful movie, and also a movie about watchfulness. It spends a lot of time letting us look at the characters, especially Joe, when they’re not taking action, when they’re at a loss for what to do with themselves or each other—and it spends a lot of time watching Joe watching; he is the primary witness of the collapse around him. But although the movie is relentlessly observant, it’s never cold or dispassionate. At first, given that it’s about a small group of people in a particular place and era, it’s easy to assume that the title is meant almost anthropologically—that we will be asked, with a certain measure of archness (as we are in Todd Field’s Little Children, for instance), to examine the rituals and customs of a specific subspecies in its natural habitat. But Dano isn’t detached in that way: the film’s title announces itself only toward the end, once Jerry returns home after weeks away on the job he took impulsively. During the fight that ends the Brinsons’ marriage, he laughs in bitter disbelief and says to Joe, “It’s a wild life, isn’t it, son?”
Jeanette’s disgusted response is “Leave him alone. He doesn’t know what is and what isn’t.” It’s her most protective, and self-protective, moment; she wants Joe to be too young to understand, and she wants to believe that she’s the kind of mother who has shielded her son from the world sufficiently to ensure his innocence. But she isn’t; Joe has, by this point, devastatingly heard her say, in tears, “I wish I was dead. If you’ve got a better plan for me, tell me. I’ll try it.”
If Ford’s first sentence suggests that we’re about to read the story of a love triangle, Dano’s movie both delivers on that promise and alters the mission. Wildlife is, ultimately, the story of a triangle, but one composed of Jerry, Jeanette, and Joe. The last act of the movie inverts every expectation—Jerry, who has been trying to put out fires, starts one; Jeanette, who was enraged that he left, walks out herself; a husband who has felt increasingly inadequate tells his wife, “I think I’m wasted on you,” and a wife who has felt utterly trapped suddenly realizes that she isn’t. “It’s a surprise, I know,” she says. “I’m surprised myself.”
Dano honors the capacity the characters have for the unexpected, and even finds optimism in it. One of the most moving aspects of his approach is that, after the brutal coming apart of the Brinsons in a moment that brings them right to the precipice of tragedy—“What’s going to happen to us?” Joe asks—the film grants them a measure of recovery by putting them back together in a new way, one that suggests they’ve all realized that their future may not be as a triangle after all, but as three separate lines moving ahead, being careful not to touch except when necessary. The film’s coda gives us the calm after the storm, and several more surprises. Winter has given way to spring: Jerry has stopped his spiral into self-destruction, is functioning as a parent, and seems to have regained his balance; Joe has chosen to stay with him rather than go with his mother, who has moved to Oregon to begin her life anew; one imagines Jeanette will be happier at forty-four in 1970 than she was at thirty-four in 1960. When she returns for a visit, it’s an awkward reunion, but not a reconciliation; this is their new normal. Joe, somehow more adult now, asks to take a picture—“I want one with all of us in it”—at the portrait studio where he works part-time, but it’s not clear if he’s trying to put his broken family back together or simply to memorialize where they are now. Holding the clicker, he sits between his mother and father, both of whom look abashed and uncertain, and says, “One. Two. Three.” It’s a countdown that also feels like a way of taking attendance, and Dano leaves us with the image of the three of them looking straight ahead, trying to smile, hoping that maybe a brighter summer day lies ahead. It’s a measure of his great compassion and empathy as a filmmaker that you wish them all well, and believe they’ve earned it.