Paul Dano’s Wildlife uses a static frame for most of the first act so it feels as though you could be looking at a series of family portraits of Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), Jerry (Jake Gyllenhall), and Joe (Ed Oxenbould). This effect works and it doesn’t: the style suggests repression but inevitably leads to a kind of aesthetic beauty that is misleading. Likewise, no matter how much is spent on costume and make-up, the husband and wife feel like film stars wearing the shoes of working class midwesterners in early 1960s Montana. Joe feels more ordinary, but by virtue of that doesn’t feel like his parents’ son.
When Jerry leaves town to fight forest fires in what marks a pattern of his frustrating behaviour - restless, drifting - we are introduced via the camera to a more unstable and frenzied world. Jeanette resents her husband, and in an attempt to carve a place for herself, she starts up a fling with a local businessman who owns a private plane and several car dealerships. Her son watches on, often too closely. What becomes clear is that Joe is not so much seeing something unfold as seeing something that has already unfolded; the decline of his family pre-determined by the pressure exerted on it by American society.
On this narrative level the film is more rewarding, thanks to Dano and Zoe Kazan’s thoughtful, largely interior script, based on Richard Ford’s novel. The great success of the film is how it portrays family in the paradoxical light of individuals being arbitrarily joined together and ordered to co-exist unevenly. In this sense there’s vast depth to Mulligan’s Jeanette, in equal measure comforting and frightening, charming and repugnant. She plays a woman teetering on the edge in a way that does not resort to clichés of this characterisation, thanks to the balance of tenderness and self-loathing in her excellent performance.
This technique of introducing a handheld camera in the film works, and it doesn’t: literally we feel more anxiety-ridden, but the effect is still literal. The first-time filmmaker Dano already seems so familiar with the language of cinema that he leaves no room for surprises. Where there are opportunities to expand; he slices them off like tumours. For instance, when the boy creeps up the front steps of the businessman’s imposing house to look through the front window, we can tell simply by how the camera stays on his face what he is seeing. Dano’s choice to then slowly pan to reveal his perspective - his mother and the businessman in coitus - turns tragedy into banality, the inevitable into the predictable. The Freudian subtext between mother and son is frozen in the occasional suggestive comment or her standing too closely to him. It is not afforded the space to linger in our mind and become more complex. In his next film, Dano might realise that what is dirty and what is beautiful need not always be separate, as the case is here with Carey Mulligan.