Wildlife
Directed by Paul Dano
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan, Bill Camp, Ed Oxenbould
Rated PG-13 for thematic material including a sexual situation, brief strong language and smoking.
1 hr. 44 min.

One of the most significant aspects of strong filmmaking is the ability to silence the chattering, the whispering, the popcorn bag rustling and crunching. When the strength of the story and the actors who bring it to life on the screen are all the tools needed to render moviegoers mute, the film is regarded as an achievement. In that vein alone, Wildlife has achieved a great deal.

That this has been accomplished by a first-time director, Paul Dano (noted for his acting performances in Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood and 12 Years a Slave), makes it all the more remarkable. Dano and his partner, actress-writer Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick), adapted the screenplay from Richard Ford’s 1990 novel. They did an exquisite job, using the pastoral peace and beauty of the Montana countryside in juxtaposition to the simmering tension of a deteriorating marriage and its effect on the couple’s teenaged son.

Wildlife is blessed with a cast of formidable talent: Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan are Jerry and Jeanette Brinson; newcomer Ed Oxenbould is their son, Joe. Jerry has set the family on a peripatetic journey through cities and jobs, landing in Montana as a golf pro. When he loses his job, it puts Jeanette on a low boil. That steadily rises when he’s asked to return to the job, but won’t. She starts to percolate as he leaves to take new work fighting a wildfire in the mountains.

While Jerry’s away, Jeanette makes extra money giving swim lessons. She begins an affair with one of her students, Warren Miller (Bill Camp), owner of an auto dealership.

There’s nothing overblown or histrionic about the performances. Carey Mulligan’s slow burn, from frustrated housewife to unhappy adulterer, encroaches like a lava flow. Jeanette’s words and deeds are the volcanic ash that falls over the soft-spoken, innocent Joe, caught in the middle of the ever-arching void between his parents. Oxenbould has the heartbreaking eyes of a forlorn pup. You feel every moment of his hope and pain. With his father in the mountains and his mother preoccupied, he forgoes homework and a new friend (Zoe Margaret Colletti) to shop and do household chores. He’s a good kid who doesn’t deserve to experience the fragmentation that’s happening around him.

Like Gyllenhaal, Mulligan has been wowing audiences and critics for a decade. She burst on the scene with an Oscar nod for An Education, was magnificent in Far from the Madding Crowd, Suffragette and Mudbound, and proved a force on stage in London and New York. She’s an actress capable of both smoldering intensity and an easy charm that seems to forge a path straight from her heart and through the deep dimple in her left cheek. Also as with Gyllenhaal, she can say more with a glance, expression or inflection than most actors can with a soliloquy.

Despite the stunning greenery and mountain backdrops, you could compare Wildlife to a play. But if it were limited to the stage, the faces, the pain, the nuances and the deadly silences would be lost in the distance from stage to seats. The emotional investment for the moviegoer is bearing witness to an inevitable evaporation that one is helpless to stop.

Set in 1960, Wildlife is a period piece that reflects the “I’m the man, you’re the woman” attitudes of the times, the denial and the passive aggression. The haunting doo-wop ballads of the era add to the sadness. Yet, it could be set in any era. Disintegration of family happens all too frequently. If you’re human at all, you feel empathy. After seeing Wildlife, with the work of its actors destined for recognition of some sort, you cannot leave the multiplex without being affected in some visceral way. An achievement, indeed.