PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Paul Dano’s 'Wildlife' Sears with the Drama of a Family’s Emotional Upheaval

Ed Oxenbould as Joe Brinson in Wildlife (source: IMDB)

An early scene of a raging forest fire becomes the overarching metaphor for Paul Dano's Wildlife, as a young man stands in the path of a different kind of destructive force.

Paul Dano

IFC Films

19 Oct 2018

In 1960 Montana, 14-year-old Joe (Ed Oxenbould) sits with his classmates in a valley while a local ranger lectures the kids on forest fires, much like the one raging near their community. Joe is the only one taking notes until one classmate stops him. As she informs him, none of this information matters. If the fire were to ever reach their small town, it would be too late for everyone.

This early scene in Paul Dano's Wildlife becomes the overarching metaphor for the rest of the film as Joe stands in the path of a different type of destructive force, that of his parents' disintegrating marriage. Like the firefighters struggling to control the blaze, Joe can only manage the mounting tension entering his home, not extinguish it.

Both Joe's father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) and mother Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) have put on good faces for years regarding their marital woes. They've moved often, usually at the whim of Jerry's wayward life and inability to hold down a job. At the beginning of the film, Jerry is working as a golf pro, only to be fired for gambling with the club's members. When the club tries to hire him back the following day, Jerry refuses. He'd rather protect his wounded dignity and nurse a six-pack of beer.

Carey Mulligan as Jeanette Brinson, Jake Gyllenhaal as Jerry Brinson (source: IMDB)

Jeanette tries to provide moral support and find work to keep their financially-strapped family afloat, but no one wants to hire her. She takes what solace she can from part-time work giving swimming lessons and keeping her husband's ego satiated before he adds yet more stress to their lives.

Soon reaching the end of his rope, Jerry decides to risk his life to help fight the wildfires for a dollar an hour, leaving his wife and son behind until he returns, if he returns. At first, Jeanette is distraught over his absence, but soon she's invigorated by the freedom she's allotted with him gone, able to seek full-time work, dress more youthful, and entertain an older businessman named Warren (Bill Camp) who has eyes for her.

All the while, Joe can't help but recognize how his already rocky home life is imploding, but what can he do about it? Joe knows his father was messing up regularly when he was around, but the son tried to maintain the peace between his parents the best he could. Without both parents around to keep the balance, this teenager is suddenly at a loss for what to do as he sees his mother veering from whatever normalcy they've held onto in the past. When she stops buying groceries and cooking, Joe takes on the responsibility. When she gets flirty with Warren, Joe keeps an eye on her, hoping she will not do what he fears has already happened between his mother and another man.

Ed Oxenbould as Joe Brinson and Carey Mulligan as Jeanette Brinson (source: IMDB)

Based on the book by Richard Ford (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1990), Wildlife is an emotionally raw and literary piece of filmmaking from Dano, a first-time writer/director who is branching off his already impressive acting career into films like Love & Mercy or There Will Be Blood. He and his co-writer/real-life partner Zoe Kazan have drawn from their rich theatrical training to craft an internal drama that resembles classical directors with stage origins like Sidney Lumet or Elia Kazan (Zoe's grandfather).

The film has a lived-in quality as we witness Joe bracing for the emotional fallout raging around him, and it helps that Dano has filled the principal roles with theatrically-trained actors who infuse Wildlife with a depth of character found in the quiet, unspoken moments. Gyllenhaal captures this in the way he portrays Jerry as a man searing with self-hate but too much of a stubborn streak to correct it, or Camp's portrayal of Warren as a man with simmering lust that's more powerful because he has the patience to get what he wants, a far cry from the compulsive Jerry. Mulligan as Jeanette is the most vibrant of the three, playing the part as someone who is drunk with the independence of not having a husband around and eager to recapture the youth she feels she lost becoming a wife and mother so early in life.

Oxenbould takes on perhaps the most complicated part of the cast as a protagonist whose quietness and seeming passivity are his only ways of coping with the tension swirling around him. Joe is too young and obedient a son to address the bad behavior of both parents, but old enough to be painfully aware of what's happening in his parents' marriage. Rather than speak out against his parents for what they do, he invokes their names, depending on whom he talks to, in the hope that guilt will impel them to do right by their spouse. More often than not, though, Joe is like the passenger in a car that's careening out of control. Jeanette at one point brings him face to face with the destruction, driving him to a forest fire to witness its savage power. He's terrified by what he sees, while she stands by indifferent to it. Joe talks about going east for college one day, and you hope he makes it.

As photographed by cinematographer Diego Garcia, Wildlife portrays Montana as a lonely, isolating part of America, punctuated by the mountains that serve as barriers to the rest of the world; the valleys in between only remind you of the distance. All the while buses come in and out of the community taking people to other places, maybe where life is better. It's likely that Joe will get away to somewhere and move past the chaos in his life, but at 14 that day appears as distant as the rest of civilization.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.