I feel like I need to wake up.
The start of Paul Dano‘s directorial debut Wildlife depicts a happy household of mother (Carey Mulligan‘s Jeanette Brinson), father (Jake Gyllenhaal‘s Jerry), and son (Ed Oxenbould‘s Joe). They’ve just moved from Utah to Montana so Jerry can work as a country club’s resident “pro”—a job allowing Jeanette to stay home rather than look for substitute teaching assignments while Joe attends high school. Their property is very modest, their neighborhood much the same. Joy can be felt within their walls as a simple life takes root. When Joe looks up from his books, he sees his parents laughing. Mom helps him with his homework and Dad turns up the baseball game on the radio with a knowing smile. Theirs is the imperfect yet satisfied prototypical 1960s American family.
What we’re about to figure out is just how imperfect they are. It’s not at the first sign of drama or even the second despite the men bracing for potentially extreme fallout nevertheless. Jerry fears letting Jeanette know about his being fired and yet we don’t know why. She conversely takes it in stride and sees his unemployment as an opportunity to get back into the workforce herself. We can tell Jerry doesn’t necessarily love this idea—probably stemming from the patriarchal notion of his wanting to be the family’s breadwinner—but he smiles approvingly anyway before continuing his job search. Cracks in their foundation are obviously forming, but they’re born from stress and universal in origin. The Brinsons tell Joe not to worry and we agree.
It’s here that we begin acknowledging perspective. Dano lets the camera follow Jerry and Jeanette away from their fourteen-year old, but only to provide the audience context. At the end of day Joe is our guide. When we see stolen glances of marital bliss cutting through the struggles of adult responsibility, they arrive through this teenager’s eyes. They’re drawn as examples of comfort, memories to cherish and let overpower any bad times that may have occurred in the past or may rear their head again. We don’t therefore hear what goes on behind closed doors when he isn’t around. Jerry and Jeanette must be having conversations to plan and readjust around their changing circumstances, but they hide those from Joe. They insulate him until doing so becomes impossible.
Adapted from Richard Ford‘s novel of the same name by Dano and life partner Zoe Kazan, Wildlife could have easily found itself unraveling into a “he said/she said” battle of familial attrition. Jerry eventually decides he needs to escape the constraints of domestic life and his dismantled pride exploded by his gregarious personality now proving a barrier to a career he only started because his talents as a golfer weren’t enough. He hops a bus to fight a massive forest fire for pennies on the dollar in a bid to “find himself.” His pride is still too strong to tell Jeanette this is the reason, though. So they fight in a way we can tell has happened before as her supportive geniality justifiably transforms into indignant resentment.
Dano and Kazan do well to paint this fracture with compassion. We feel for Jerry’s plight and understand his desire to strip down his psyche and finally put his hopes and dreams to bed. What we didn’t know is that this may not be an isolated incident. We can’t therefore blame Jeanette for her reaction or the callousness created in the aftermath. She’s given him chances before. She’s made the compromises and moved to another state because of her love for this man. So for him to refuse to do the same is a legitimate slap to the face. Is it enough to push her almost instantly onto a reckless path straight into the arms of a local entrepreneur (Bill Camp‘s Warren Miller)? Who are we to say?
What follows is high drama steeped in an authenticity devoid of simple answers. We learn quickly that the idyllic life Joe believed he led was a product of good parenting and age. Maybe he was too young to remember other fights. Maybe their frustrations got to the point where they could no longer keep up the façade that things were okay. Despite any animosity that may have occurred previously, they remained a cohesive unit. Jerry leaving them behind now is what sparks uncertainty for the future and ultimately prevents them from hiding their fears and anger from a boy whose world is shattered overnight. We respect Jerry’s decision, though—not for its impact on his family, but for what it will mean for him. Jeanette deserves the same.
This is where Wildlife transcends other films of its kind. A majority of the runtime is devoted to the weeks when Jeanette and Joe are alone in their home to watch as she removes all forms of conservative-minded maternity and housewife purity. She sheds her identity under labels of “mother” and “wife” to reclaim her sexuality through wardrobe and attitude just as Warren’s attention allows her to feel seen in a way she hadn’t for too long. Does this streak of pursuing happiness for her own sake happen under the correct pretenses or with Joe in mind considering his status as tagalong voyeur with the hopes he’ll tattle to his father and force him to understand the cost of his decision? No. But you cannot begrudge her rebellion.
A lesser work would have vilified her. It would have rendered her the adulterer and Jerry the scorned even though those roles were figuratively reversed mere minutes before Jeanette invites Warren to their home. Doing so would only have reinforced patriarchal stereotypes, though. Jerry would be forgiven for leaving because it’s his duty as a “man” while Jeanette’s desires for more would be dismissed as weakness or worse: evil. This is speculation, but I feel that I must commend Kazan’s involvement for not letting this be the case. I haven’t read the source material nor do I think Dano wouldn’t have found this nuance alone. All I know is that having a woman’s voice on-set as a creative force behind the camera was necessary to make Jeanette real.
Mulligan is a huge part too as she delivers one of the year’s best performances. So often we’ve seen films where male leads lose themselves under life’s pressures. When we think of mid-life crises it’s always a man having an affair or buying a sports car. What about the women? Especially those trapped in the domestic prisons of 1960s American traditionalism? Jeanette is Jerry’s supportive wife, Joe’s devoted mother, a cook, cleaner, problem solver, and part-time swimming instructor doing everything in her power to keep the machine of their family churning. Her later internalized self-hate fighting against the need to step out on her husband somehow gives a voice to the voiceless. It’s not about punishing Jerry. It’s about ensuring she cannot talk herself out of leaving again.
The film isn’t then about a dysfunctional family despite Dano planning for it to be the first of a series on the subject he hopes to direct. This is about people adhering to an archaic system by stifling their potential. Rather than be the victim, Joe is but a witness to a sea change of cultural taboo. We’re watching as Jerry and Jeanette step outside of their responsibilities and take stock in what they want as individuals—something they were told they weren’t able to do. They epitomize the template of college sweethearts who saw marriage and kids as the next evolutionary step to take parallel with careers or lack thereof. So don’t treat this as a family’s end when it’s actually three separate lives readying new beginnings.
 Carey Mulligan as Jeanette Brinson, and Jake Gyllenhaal as Jerry Brinson in Paul Dano’s WILDLIFE. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
 Carey Mulligan as Jeanette Brinson, Ed Oxenbould as Joe Brinson, and Jake Gyllenhaal as Jerry Brinson in Paul Dano’s WILDLIFE. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.
 Carey Mulligan as Jeanette Brinson in Paul Dano’s WILDLIFE. Photography by Scott Garfield. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.