When we first meet them, the Brinsons seem to be a model American family circa 1960. First we see Dad Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) in the yard throwing a football to his 14-year-old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould), then they settle down to a home-cooked meal courtesy of mom Jeanette (Carey Mulligan). After dinner, the family listens to the radio and Jeannette helps Joe with his homework. They live in a beautiful region of Montana, where “Big Sky Country” is not just an advertising slogan. But cracks soon appear in this pretty picture—a check bounces, Joe is a benchwarmer on his school football team and wants to quit, and then Jerry is fired from his job as a golf pro for being overly familiar with the club members.
Anyone can be a poor fit for a particular job, or just have bad luck and get fired through no fault of their own. The problem is that it’s not the first time for Jerry, and he doesn’t seem to learn from his experiences. He believes intensely in the American Dream as packaged by the likes of Dale Carnegie, and can’t understand why he can’t seem to catch a piece of it for himself. Jeannette is initially supportive of her husband (“That man is a damn fool! How will he ever find a better man for the job?”), but it’s clear that she has grown weary of this oft-repeated pattern. She’s also tired of constantly deferring to her husband (they have moved numerous times after he got fired from his latest job, and each time she has had to rebuild her life in a strange place), while he doesn’t seem interested in holding up his end of the bargain (i.e., to be a responsible breadwinner and good role model to his son).
Jeanette quickly finds a job teaching swimming at the Y, and Joe begins working as a photographer’s assistant. Jerry, however, has found a new dream to chase—fighting wildfires, working as part of a makeshift crew composed largely of life’s losers. His decision threatens to be the bridge too far for this family—they’ve managed to hold together as a cohesive unit largely because they assumed that was what people did, but such assumptions are not guaranteed to last.
While Joe’s parents have tried to shield him from the worst of their troubles, he clearly understands more than they realize. This is first and foremost Jerry’s film, and Oxenbould does a marvelous job suggesting the many thoughts and feelings running through his character’s mind that he knows should be left unexpressed. He’s also frequently called upon to be the adult in the room, which is never an easy task for a teenager. Milligan does well with a role that allows her to show two contrasting sides of the same character—first the dutiful wife who has accomodated herself to her husband’s whims, then the bold and expressive woman that emerges once she is able to be herself again. Bill Camp also does a lot with a supporting role as a local businessman, making sympathetic a character that would be easy to condemn.
Wildlife, adapted from a novel by Richard Ford, is an astonishingly assured directorial debut for Paul Dano, who might have played Joe a decade or two ago. It’s a very calm movie, with most actions taking place within the characters rather than being externalized, and this approach to storytelling is enhanced by the beautiful cinematography of Diego Garcia and unfussy editing by Louise Ford and Matthew Hannam. | Sarah Boslaugh