Co-written with Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano directs an adaptation of Richard Ford’s 1990 novel, Wildlife is a 1950s set drama about a struggling family in Arizona. Formerly a pro golfer, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) works as a groundskeeper at the local golf club until he gets fired for being too conversational with the middle-class customers.
His wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan in a similarly neurotic and seductive role to her performance in Shame) takes a job as a local swimming instructor, which only harms Jerry’s pride, so in response he signs up for the life-threatening role of putting out the wildfires in the local woodland.
During his absence, the film centres around Jeanette as she both re-discovers her sexuality and independence.The film could easily be grouped with 1950s melodramas such as Revolutionary Road but Wildlife differs by examining the breakdown of Jeanette and Jerry’s marriage through the perspective of their son Joe (Ed Oxenbould).
It’s beautifully filmed as it follows the stylistic trait of many movies set in that era, but exceeds others by actually looking like a believable 1950s America, rather than a mere pastiche. The film is more nuanced and metatextual than the typical marriage breakdown drama, particularly through the motif of photography, as Joe takes on the role of a studio photographer and his employer declares “people come here because they want to cherish a happy moment…. and make it permanent.”
Dano astutely questions whether the family’s breakdown is triggered by society’s idealistic conception of the nuclear family and is foregrounded by a haunting orchestral score alongside beautiful shots of Arizona’s surrounding landscape.
Wildlife is an impressive achievement. Carey Mulligan’s performance is astonishing as the once rational, independent woman who transforms into a 1950s Hollywood seductive diva. However, Mulligan’s performance surpasses and overpowers the film’s modest approach, leaving it unbalanced as it deserves a wider, more ambitious stage.
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