There is a scene in Wildlife that surprises with its quiet fury. A teenage boy (Ed Oxenbould) is brought to the edge of a wildfire that his father has left home to fight. Joe's mother Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) is furious that her husband Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) has taken such a risky job for low pay. But she is also angry that he left her and their son to fend for themselves. We hear the fire at first, as Joe's blank, stunned face takes in what we cannot see. When the camera finally switches to his point of view, it doesn't seem like much other than a hill of smoky trees. But the frame slowly pans upwards, gradually revealing the fire and fury of a hillside being engulfed by flame.
This moment is also like the evolution of Carey Mulligan's character in this quietly tumultuous tale of a family in 1960s Montana. Her well-meaning but drunkard husband Jerry loses another job after they have just relocated to a new town for a fresh start. Though she puts on a chipper smile of support, there is a bit of a crack in her facade, showing irritation--the first spark of her character losing patience with her husband.
This slow-moving tale doesn't show its cards for the first half hour, and we think it is going to follow Jerry and his struggle, defaulting to the male character, as movies tend to do. Jerry finally humbles himself to take the lowly and dangerous firefighting job, partially to save face, but also perhaps to flee his increasingly testy wife. Suddenly the movie opens up and takes a turn. Wildlife is actually Jeanette's story, and Carey Mulligan is fantastic.
Jeanette reveals herself to be resourceful, much to the surprise of her quiet son. She takes a job as a swim instructor. She seemingly makes a connection with a successful businessman (Bill Camp). She says that he has a job for her at his auto dealership. Joe is trustful, but he also sees his mother change as she is forced, perhaps not for the first time, to clean up her husband's mess and fend for herself.
Without revealing her path, watching Jeanette calculate her way to ensuring her and her son's survival is fascinating. Mulligan can be warm, thoughtful, and quickly judgmental. Joe experiences the rude awakening that we all go through at some point in our lives, seeing a parent as a person who had a past before your existence. Jeanette sees the potential for a new life, where she could perhaps recapture some of her old dreams. But there are dreams, then there is reality, and reality is often not as shiny.
Wildlife is a gorgeous quiet drama, a first-time film by director Paul Dano from the book by Richard Ford. The cinematography is fantastic, even if it is apparently Oklahoma standing in for Montana. Where it falters a bit is with the relative one-note enigma of Jerry (though his character isn't around for much of the film), plus Ed Oxenbould's Joe is more reactive than active. We get to experience some of the drama simply by watching his reaction to something off screen. Sometimes his face is more blank than emotive, which dulls the effect. His expressions are not giving us as much as Dano was perhaps intending.
But Mulligan is great. Just watching her face flick from emotion to emotion, sometimes subtly and in control, but more often raging and impatient, is a movie in itself. You realize that the frustrated housewife of the 60s never gets to be the center of a film, in the way she was never the center of attention in our own culture. You can see what sort of stories we have missed by not giving these women their due.