It’s fall of 1960 in Montana when we meet the Brinson family in “Wildlife ,” a carefully considered and deeply moving adaptation of a Richard Ford novel about a fracturing marriage and the teenage son witnessing it all.
Things don’t start out bad, or don’t seem to be. Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a well-pressed and affable golf pro working at a local country club, shining shoes and chatting up the members, while his wife Jeanette Brinson (Carey Mulligan) tends to their rented home and 14-year-old son (Ed Oxenbould) with a smile and a sunny attitude. But the shine of the post-war 50s is starting wear off and the veneer of happiness is beginning to crack, first slowly and then irreparably.
The first crack comes when Jerry loses his job at the club for daring to be overly friendly with the members, and thinking that he’s their equal and not their help. When he’s offered a chance to come back, he lets his pride consume him instead. Jeanette, realizing that their tenuous situation might become even more dire, finds a job on her own, although she doesn’t let her down in the dumps husband see that it was anything more than a lucky, easy find.
Their relationship, at first, seems to be one of equals, two people who like each, their son and their modest lower-ish middle class life that they still believe has the potential to improve. But then Jerry starts to lose that ambition, that belief that tucking in your shirt and smiling and pressing your slacks and having your wife stay home (despite her intelligence) and son play football (despite his dislike of the sport) will help you improve your lot in life. So he leaves, taking a dangerous, low-wage job fighting wildfires until the snow comes.
Jeanette, who has thus far not allowed Jerry’s childish behavior to sour her own outlook and positivity, starts to regress too (dressing as she did in high school, trading her muted hues for bright colors and purple eyeshadow) as she desperately tries to figure out what she’s supposed to do. She settles on going after a wealthier and older man, Warren Miller (Bill Camp) who owns a nice car dealership and whose wife left him and who seems to be a ticket out and into a nicer home.
Joe is witness to all of this turmoil, to his mother actually being honest about her desires, her disappointments and her transgressions. It’s that rare adult drama that’ll have you feeling like a kid again, while also feeling the pain of the adults.
“Wildlife” is composed with such elegance and empathy that it actually feels like a novel with its keen sense of time and place and characters as rich as the Montana landscape, which is hard to compete with. There are shots that are so beautiful, you want them to last forever.
The achievement is made all the more extraordinary when you consider the fact that it is from a first time director, in actor Paul Dano, who wrote the adaptation with his real life partner, actress and writer Zoe Kazan. Together these two old souls have (with Ford) studiously captured the particular loneliness of that time, and the anxiety of not living up to the post-war prosperity of everyone else.
“Wildlife” gives particular care to the character of Jeanette and I’d be hard-pressed to name a better performance from Mulligan, who is powerful and vulnerable and can walk right up to that line of female rage without slipping into caricature or stereotype. Of course it helps that she has strong counterparts to play off of, in Oxenbould, and Gyllenhaal who is eerily good at playing the toxically insecure man.
It’s one worth making the trip to the theater for. “Wildlife” isn’t just a great first film, it’s a great film.
“Wildlife,” an IFC Films release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “thematic material including a sexual situation, brief strong language, and smoking.” Running time: 104 minutes. Four stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents Strongly Cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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