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‘Wildlife’ teaches understanding in times of disaster

| Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Maggie Klaers | The Observer

Many of Netflix’s offerings this year include idiosyncratic characters, distant settings and altered realities. “Wildlife” possesses none of those features. Its elements exist in family dynamics today, focusing attention on familial struggles of duty, love and autonomy. Though released in 2018, the film feels perfectly suited to the uncertainty and destruction of this year. For those who can tolerate watching a family collapse, “Wildlife” offers a lesson in weathering crises of self, family and nature.

Paul Dano’s directorial debut follows the marriage of Jeannette and Jerry Brinson (Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal) from the perspective of their teenage son Joe (Ed Oxenbould). Though golf pro Jerry has moved his family multiple times to find work, his latest firing leaves him aimless with a wounded pride. All members of the Brinson family struggle to preserve their dignity as they try to survive 1960 in Montana, a place with few jobs.

With her husband unwilling to accept an entry-level job to make ends meet, Jeannette leaves the home to provide for her family. Joe also takes a job as a photographer’s assistant to help his parents, but his grades and friendships suffer.  Both characters make sacrifices that undermine Jerry’s sense of vision and control, further isolating each member of the Brinson household. Then, Jerry’s executive decision to fight the wildfires — which are consuming a distant part of their new state — sends each member of the family into a state of turmoil and restructuring.

Jerry departs on his journey of self-discovery, though his spiritual connection to Jeannette likely ended before the film even begins. Jeannette is a mother determined to support her son and herself; this drive quickly leads her to begin a relationship with a wealthy businessman (Bill Camp) who more than supplements the meager wages Jerry earns as a firefighter. Though the affair lacks love on both sides, loneliness and money push Jeannette to this older man, often in the presence of her son.

Oxenbould has the face and emotional acuity of someone much older than he is, and he brings prodigious talent to this portrayal. Rather than lash out at his mother or the man she’s seeing, Joe tries to protect her while silently bearing the pain of his father’s replacement in their lives. Joe’s strong connection to his mother and his awareness of his family’s circumstances bind him to his mother as she attempts to build a new life. This inescapable torment is echoed in an expansive landscape obscured by smoke and crowded interior scenes.  

The claustrophobic circumstances give each character little choice but to develop an extreme empathy for one another, to the point that they even adopt each other’s roles. What begins as a borderline Oedipal dynamic between mother and son develops into a reversal of who cares for whom, as Joe must drive his mother home and cook meals. Joe remains determined to repair the damaged bonds between his family members, while both his parents return to adolescent uncertainty and dependence as they renegotiate their futures.

Dano rearranges the family in triads to visualize each upset in family dynamics. Even the man who seduces Jeannette eventually adopts the role Joe originally played when he attempts to make peace between an almost spousal Jeannette and Joe during a dinnertime conflict. As unsettling as these realist body swaps seem, they never reach the point of absurdity because of the acute awareness each character has for others’ challenges and motivations. This time of flux is untenable, but each person recovers their wisdom when faced with the consequences of their childish actions. While past happiness may be unsalvageable, each person finds a path forward that reconciles individual desires with family obligations.  

60 years have passed since the Brinsons separated, and 30 since Richard Ford published the novel on which this movie is based. However, the personal and communal issues raised by this story ring truer than ever. California’s wildfires provide direct parallels to the movie’s historical context, but the movie echoes social responses to the ongoing pandemic. Jerry dismisses the invisible threat that radio and television broadcasts proclaim, and later Jeannette warns Jerry that he and the other men will not be able to control it and stay safe. Jerry is one of many aimless men in this world, and likely other families are experiencing these same arbitrations of household and gender power.

The restricted options the Brinsons have to make ends meet trap them in a home of conflict with no sign of escape in sight.  Issues such as these are recognized and experienced by people around the country.  This movie does not invite escape from these oppressive realities; rather, it demonstrates the necessity of seeking to understand others in times of disaster, both inside and outside the home.  


Title: “Wildlife”

Starring: Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould, Bill Camp

DirectorPaul Dano

Genre: family drama

If you like: “An Education,” “Waves,” “Pain and Glory,” “Enemy”

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5

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