Spoiler alert! There is no wildlife in this movie. There isn’t even really any reference to it, which seems odd given a key plot point being Montana wildfires. Unraveling mother Jeanette (a pretty great Carey Mulligan) makes reference to the trees, such as how in a wildfire they are called “fuel,” but she doesn’t really talk much about the animals. She does a little bit, a passing reference to small creatures unable to adapt or move. I think maybe I just stumbled upon this movie’s grand metaphor right there.
Wildlife plays a lot like a movie adaptation of a great novel, and perhaps a competent adaptation, which can only be appreciated as such if you read the novel. The book of the same name on which this is indeed based, by Richard Ford and first published in 1990, was not one I had even heard of before this movie, let alone read.
And as I have said countless times before, a movie should be judged on its own merits. How well does Wildlife work without even thinking about the novel? I’d say it’s . . . fine. The script, co-written by Paul Dano (who also directs, his first feature film) and Zoe Kazan, has an air of vaguely self-conscious, presumed importance: it has something to say.
Reportedly a passion project for Dano, I’m not sure how or why this story should elicit any such passion. It’s a pretty simple story, a three-person white family in rural Montana in 1960, the 14-year-old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) observing helplessly as his parents’ marriage falls apart. Joe’s dad, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), has trouble keeping work, and makes the baffling and reckless decision to take a low-paying job working with the men fighting to keep the firefighters at bay. He must go away for weeks to do this, and in effect abandons his family.
All of this is fairly well executed, although I have mixed feelings about how a lot of this movie was shot. Paul Dano seems enamored with keeping the camera held on a character’s face to show us their reaction to something they’re seeing, for several moments before we get to see it. This is not limited to reaction shots, either; in one scene, the camera waits pointedly after a bus passes in front of it before panning to show us whether Joe boarded it or not. What is the point of this? To keep us in suspense? With a quiet, intimate drama?
This movie will easily bore a lot of people. I was not one of those people; I was engaged, although more than once I wondered why. I felt bad for Joe, a kid clearly struggling with how to cope with parents who were both selfish and neglectful as they indulged their own neuroses. Jeanette is less and less likable as the story goes on. Jerry is fairly likable all along, but increasingly exasperating.
There are certainly aspects of the story, at least as presented here, that seem to skirt with anachronism, the way these characters speak to each other. There’s a moment when Jeanette, speaking about Jerry, tells her son, “We haven’t been intimate lately. You’re old enough now to hear that.” Is he?
Wildlife does contain many indelible images. A brief drive out to the wildfires, evidently something you could drive far closer to in 1960 than could possibly ever be permitted today. Joe gets out of his car and for a few brief moments the camera pans up the hill to show the burning. Early on, when Joe and some classmates are learning about these fires, a girl tells him he shouldn’t bother taking notes: just like with air raids, she says, if it reaches here it’s too late.
Plenty of other critics love this movie, and I feel like I’m missing something, some brand of depth that I’m just not reaching. I, for one, can think of no one in my life this movie would be for. There’s plenty to parse in a college film studies course, I suppose. I’m not sorry I saw it; the performances are solid, even if they’re of characters engaging in mystifying behaviors. This is an odd sort of movie that I kind of liked in spite of the many criticisms I have for it, and I couldn’t really tell you why.