I never felt an agony so hostile to life than when I found out my mom was cheating on my dad. Gosh, what an absolutely silly sentence to type out. What I’m doing now is retrospectively reliving conversations and events that only now seem vital. It was during the summer between high school and college, where I had moved to a new apartment in Edgewater, while my parents along with my younger brother relocated to a suburban respite. Imagine the incalculable endurance required to move from the center of Chicago to its most northern neighborhood and, on that same afternoon, to a western enclave on the city’s outskirts. But with the literal distance that came with my parents no longer being within arms reach came an incomprehensible, emotionally crippling despair. Coping with loneliness requires a tremendous amount of work and the increasing distance that both my mother and father placed between us made it all the more difficult. Sometimes I think I barely survived, other times I think it made me stronger. Or I need to tell myself that, because in reality only one of those statements is true.
Paul Dano’s Wildlife observes a boy watching his mother and father crumble to pieces. Or as the film will more bluntly put it: it observes a boy who once firmly believed in the naivety of everlasting love, of the commitment that his mother and father had for one another, watches it burn to the ground, leaving him to navigate the charred remains of a once-verdant childhood. The boy Joe (Ed Oxenbould, more or less looking exactly as one would imagine a 15-year old Paul Dano would look), is frequently at the center of Dano’s frame. Dano will frequently hold his camera on Joe, as a separate, typically more heated conversation occurs at the periphery of the frame. This approach is most effective early in the film, when Joe observes his father, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), getting fired from his job as a caddie. It’s the major catalyst to the film’s series of emotional crises, ultimately resulting in Jerry leaving behind Joe and his wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) to put out fires throughout Montana, in an attempt to provide for his family.
Dano repositions his focus on Jeanette, yet remains committed to observing her through Joe’s perspective. This in itself provides a series of jarring character developments, where the once matronly Jeanette morphs into a radically new, fiercely independent creature. Providing swimming lessons at the local YMCA, she finds solace in William Miller (Bill Camp), one of the town’s wealthier residents, and becomes infatuated by the security he can provide. When observed through Joe, though, the prevailing sentiment is one of betrayal, as he sees his mother’s loyalty to her marriage become compromised.
Wildlife is a film that amounts to many ephemeral gestures, anchored by less a character and more a blank slate of a performance. Ed Oxenbould’s work is fundamentally a series of reactions, which requires most of the film’s heavy lifting to be done by what its audience brings to it. For this viewer, I reluctantly filled in the blanks, the film’s atoms colliding with my own to create an absolutely obliterating experience that led me to excavate buried fossils that were probably best left in the memory museum. But whereas both Gyllenhaal (giving his best performance in years) and Mulligan (one of the best performances of the year in a year with plenty of them) feel like fully-realized characters, the film’s by-design attempt to make Joe a sponge to this trauma felt too calibrated, too precise in a film about fickle emotions.
Much like Jonah Hill’s Mid90s, Wildlife actively attempts to disengage from specifics, instead requiring its audience to fill in the blanks with their own past experiences, traumas, and insecurities. The approach, I think, has its merits, particularly in evoking a primal, emotional reaction. I step back from Wildlife and I don’t necessarily know if Joe or Jerry or Jeannette are going to be ok. Instead, it leaves me thinking about my own inalterable past; not an especially healthy habit. But for its 100-minute runtime, Wildlife inspired me to go through all those photographs that are in my mind, confronting me with the harsh truth that, if it weren’t for these moments, I wouldn’t be who I am now. One, two, three.