Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Review: "Wildlife"

“Wildlife” features some truly wonderful actors plying their craft at the highest of levels. And I didn’t believe a one of them for a cold minute.

This drama set in 1960 stars Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal as a youngish couple whose marriage is fracturing. Ed Oxenbould plays their sensitive 14-year-old son, Joe, who is forced to sit a front row seat to the slow, raucous dissolution. The film is based on the novel by Richard Ford, unread by me.

In stories of this kind we’re used to a lot of repressed emotions and raised voices behind closed doors. In the Hollywood view of this period, America was a cloistered place where people didn’t like to publicly air their dirty laundry. Things like marital estrangement and infidelity were swept under rugs.

Here, the film takes things so far to the opposite end it strains credulity to the breaking point, and beyond.

Not only do Jeanette and Jerry Brinson (Mulligan and Gyllenhaal, respectively) make no effort to hide their growing war from Joe, they actually enlist him as a participant. He sits in on their arguments and is explicitly asked to offer an opinion or take sides.

Later, the grotesquerie will grow even more overt, and less believable.

The Brinsons move around a lot because Jerry is always chasing the next big thing. He was recruited to be a golf pro at the club in Great Falls, Montana, but soon loses the job because he’s too “familiar” with the guests. (Read: he gambles with them.) They quickly offer to take him back, but Jerry’s pride is hurt and he refuses. Soon he’s doing little more than lounging on the couch, listening to ball games on the radio and sipping an endless parade of beers.

Jeanette is outwardly supportive of her husband’s lackadaisical job search. She even takes work herself as a swim instructor, and Joe gives up football to work in a photo studio afternoons after school to help make ends meet. 

That changes when Jerry agrees to take a job fighting the fires that seem to rage every year in the vast Montana forests. It will take him away from the family for weeks on end, which Jeanette views as a betrayal of sorts. She imagines him dallying with women, and uses that as justification for stepping out on her own.

The target of her amorous energy is an unlikely one: Warren Miller, a much older man played by Bill Camp. Balding, portly, bespectacled and walking with a pronounced limp, Warren isn’t much to look at. But he owns a car dealership, so Jeanette views him as a trade up from Jerry.

This is the directorial debut of Paul Dano, a very offbeat and good character actor, who also co-wrote the screenplay adaptation with actress Zoe Kazan (“The Big Sick”).

The biggest problem with “Wildlife” is never giving Joe any kind of distinct identity. His role is to just be there and witness the turmoil. Many stories use a character of this sort to be the audience’s lens to look at the real subjects, in this case Jerry and Jeanette.

But Joe isn’t even much of a real character. He doesn’t seem to have any interests, or motivations, or thoughts, or personality. There’s a girl who takes an obvious interest in him, but Joe sort of shrugs her off and the movie forgets about her.

There’s one scene in “Wildlife” that’s make-or-break. Jeanette puts on her “desperation dress” and takes Joe with her to have dinner at Warren’s house while Jerry is away. It’s an exquisitely awkward event. Mulligan skillfully shows us Jeanette’s obvious intention: to throw herself at Warren. For his part, Warren doesn’t appear disturbed about initiating the affair in her son’s presence, even offering fatherly advice.

I can’t for the life of me fathom people who would act like this. The problem isn’t that the film presents characters who are beyond comprehension; it’s that it doesn’t even attempt to explain these people to themselves.

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