There is a certain level of craftsmanship to “Wildlife,” which is showing at this year’s New York Film Festival. The movie takes place in 1960 Montana and focuses on the Brinson family. Father, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal); Mother, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan); and son, Joe (Ed Oxenbould) generally lament being in such a cold, barren, location, but after a series of moves find themselves in this, for them, new space.
That coldness, that staid nature, is beautifully reflected in the scenery offered by director Paul Dano (who wrote the movie with Zoe Kazan), but it is unfortunately also reflected just about everywhere else in the film. Certainly, leaving “Wildlife,” one is left with the sense of the film’s deliberateness, but also with a distinct distance between themselves and the work.
“Wildlife” feels as though it purposefully separates the audience from the characters. We are outside observers, there to witness a moment in time, a slice of American family history, and we are meant to be an uncritical, unresponsive observer. So, we sit there and we watch as Jerry loses a job (or another job), as Jean’s anger towards her husband grows, and as Joe just wants to find his place in a new town. We watch as Jerry finds work fighting a fire in the mountains, necessitating his being out of town for an extended period. We watch as Jean finds romance with Warren Miller (Bill Camp), romance that she has long since lost with Jerry. And, we watch as Joe observes his mother’s actions with growing concern.
There ought to be enough meat on the bones of the story to pull the viewer in, but it never does. It certainly offers the sense of wanting to be a story of Americana and how the staid life of the ’50s led to an explosion in the ’60s and to where we are today, but it doesn’t really say anything new. Dano and the cast are never able to wrap their arms around the audience and hook them. It just unfolds at a languid pace for 104 minutes before reaching its pre-ordained conclusion without any truly interesting steps along the way.
It is unclear whether we are meant to see the world through Joe’s eyes or Jean’s. That is, everything indicates that we ought to be seeing it through Joe’s, with his growing horror that his mother is cheating on his father. He is frozen by this realization, unable to figure out what he should be doing in his father’s absence. He can only watch it happen, and so too can we. Joe doesn’t understand Jean’s actions, he is merely shocked and dismayed by them.
If we are watching through Jean’s eyes, perhaps there is an acceptable explanation for her doing what she does. There will be a history of slights by Jerry. There will be discussions between the two to which we are not privy. There will be a way to get inside Jean and understand what she has done and which might attempt to give us a reason for it to be okay for her to cheat on her husband.
Again though, everything about the film puts us in Joe’s position, not Jean’s. The result of that is that we have a mild repulsion for Jean’s action. The audience is given no reason to care for her before she goes down this road, and her actions do nothing to make us care for her as the movie progresses. It starts to, with the obvious upset she must feel at Jerry losing his job and then leaving to fight the fire, but that’s the end of it and it isn’t enough.
It must be said that an audience need not agree with a character in order for a movie to work. We do not decide whether we like the movie based upon whether we like Jean. What does, however, help a film is a way for us to understand characters and their actions, a way “in” to the story. That is what is lacking in “Wildlife.”
Dano’s direction and the way the story unfolds keep us at a distance from all these characters, and that distance may beautifully serve the time period and the location, but it does little to create the sympathy/empathy so desperately needed to involve the audience. Instead, it leaves us feeling blah.
There is a moment or two when it nearly gets interesting, when it seems as though events are going to boil over… but they don’t. They just don’t. What is a problem in one scene is fixed in the next and we are left feeling as though we were almost connecting to the characters.
Dano’s directorial debut winds up technically capable but emotionally insufficient.
photo credit: IFC Films