Starring: Ed Oxenbould, Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal
Director: Paul Dano
Running Time: 105 mins
Wildlife is an American film about a teenage boy who witnesses the rupture of his parents’ relationship, having to come to terms with life after his father runs off to take a dangerous job, and his mother begins to struggle with her new situation.
This is a really good film. Wildlife focuses on a period of real crisis in the lives of its characters, but it’s not a showy, hyper-emotional drama, instead choosing to double down well on the more quiet struggles of each individual in the middle of a family breakdown, brought together by calm, measured directing and three fantastic performances throughout.
At its core, Wildlife tells the story of a typical, all-American family, and the problems that come with the expectations and traditional roles of each family member in society, especially in the early 1960s. Couple that with a tale of family instability and dysfunctionality that’s reminiscent of all-time classic American Beauty, and you have a film that’s packed full with riveting emotional depth.
But with so much emotion and drama at play, most films would take this premise to grand, hyperbolic lengths, intensifying the family rupture to a theatrical extent, and thereby taking away from some of the more underrated yet even more relatable and hard-hitting realities of the situation.
And that’s what I really liked about Wildlife. It tells a great story, and one that’s full of emotional depth, but it really keeps its feet on the ground throughout, refusing to ever see its characters turn into crazed, hyper-emotional stage actors.
Director Paul Dano clearly makes a concerted effort right from the start of the film to make it as down-to-earth as possible. Alongside its quiet, patient atmosphere, the film’s setting in a small Montana town, as well as a more earthy portrayal of the 1960s through some excellent costume and production design, bring a story that often threatens to burst out of control back down to the ground brilliantly, allowing the subtler emotional details to really hti home.
While many films – including American Beauty – choose to focus on the rupture between a husband and wife in this situation, Wildlife lets us see the same scenario play out from the perspective of Joe, an honest, normal 14 year-old boy. In that, not only do we get a more relaxed portrayal of a dysfunctional marriage than the emotionally charged bickering it would appear as between two adults, but the film also opens the door for some genuinely striking and really touching emotional beats.
Joe’s confusion as his family seems to break down around him is heartbreaking for one, but his earnestness and determination to carry on as normal is all the more powerful, as we see the devastating emotional toil that a marital crisis has on a third party, in this case an innocent and perfectly well-meaning boy.
So, rather than simply being a film about the struggles of marriage in the modern day, we see a totally different perspective on an age-old story, with Joe’s rapidly changing mentality in the face of the crisis proving both touching and very heavy-going.
What’s more is that, as well as young Joe, both parents receive due focus in the story. Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal’s performances are both fantastic – and young Ed Oxenbould stands strong alongside them as Joe – but it’s the fact that Wildlife looks at the psyches of each of their characters separately in the context of a crisis that makes for really interesting viewing.
In that, we see the fallout of a marital breakdown from a far more personalised perspective, and although Gyllenhaal’s character isn’t always the most nuanced or striking, Carey Mulligan is the one who really stands out throughout, with a stunning performance that goes to far, far darker depths than you would ever expect at first, proving her best work by far since the brilliant An Education.
Overall, I was hugely impressed with Wildlife. A riveting, down-to-earth and brilliantly calm drama, it’s a film that paints an enthralling yet emotionally tender portrayal of a family and marital crisis, taking a different direction from the norm in the effort to bring new, more intimate perspectives to the fore, and proving a genuinely touching watch in the process, which is why I’m giving it an 8.0.