Don’t miss the blaze that Carey Mulligan ignites in Wildlife. The British actress gives her considerable all to the role of Jeanette Brinson, a young housewife in Montana, circa 1960, who starts to unravel when her husband Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) heads to the mountains 40 miles away to fight wildfires and leaves her alone to raise their 14-year-old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould). In a beautifully nuanced directing debut, actor Paul Dano mines the smallest details in Richard Ford’s acclaimed 1990 novel — he and his partner Zoe Kazan wrote the emotionally-attuned script — to create a portrait of a woman who can’t quite catch up with the frustration and feminist stirrings she feels inside.
Gyllenhaal, who appears mostly at the beginning and end of the movie, creates a complex and conflicted portrait of Jerry, a golf pro who gets fired from his job and lets his stubborn pride reject a later offer from his bosses to take him back. His decision to go fight fires for a dollar an hour reflects an impulsive selfishness that leaves his family stunned. Kudos to the outstanding Oxenbould, 17, an Australian actor who lets us experience what’s happening through Joe’s disoriented perspective. (You can imagine a younger Dano, now 34, taking on the part of the boy, a watchful teenager trying to make sense of the confusion his parents are experiencing.)
But it’s Mulligan who provides the film’s focus as Jeanette realizes that playing her part as a decent, mid-century housewife has left her flailing. “What kind of man leaves his wife and child in such a lonely place?” she asks. Joe finds part-time work he likes helping a local portrait photographer, a job that allows him and cinematographer Diego Garcia the chance to search faces for meaning. Mom, however, feels set adrift. Signing on as a swimming instructor brings her into contact with Warren Miller (Bill Camp), a lech whose wealth offers the promise of a safe harbor. At a catastrophic dinner at Warren’s home, the boy is forced to watch his mother, dancing provocatively for dessert, begin to consider sexual compromises that he’s not equipped to understand. It’s a stunning sequence of psychological undercurrents that highlights Dano’s rare gift for illuminating the perils of human interaction. Camp, a bravura character actor (The Night Of, The Leftovers), finds the predatory bluster and unexpected kindness in Warren, just the combo to strike hope and fear in the hearts of Joe and Jeanette.
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Wildlife leaves you deeply moved with a vital take on a woman who stops tamping down her feelings and forges a new identity out of the ashes of her past. Jeanette does not want to join the “standing dead,” a term for trees that survive a forest fire. She yearns for something more than getting by. The question is: How can she manifest her independence without damaging her already fragile family unit? The movie makes that clash feel timelessly urgent and thrillingly alive. And as for Mulligan, one word: Wow.