“Wildlife” is a movie adapted by Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano from a 1990 Richard Ford novel about a family in crisis in 1960s Montana.
Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), the father, has moved his family yet again for a new job, this time as a golf course pro, but he’s laid off after a short while and has to figure out a way to support his wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and young son Joe (Ed Oxenbould). Although he has no experience as a firefighter, Jerry joins a crew of men going off to try to save the town from wildfires in the distance that are moving closer (shades of modern California).
The story is told from the perspective of 14-year-old Joe, on whom his father’s extended absence weighs heavily. New in town, with no friends, he’s lost and lonely. It’s also not easy for Jeanette, although after a short while, she seems freed by her husband’s absence. She takes up with Warren, a well-to-do local auto dealer (Bill Camp), who offers her things Jerry never could. His mother’s affair, to which Joe is witness, takes even more of a toll on him.
I found myself drawn into this small world thanks to the performances. Mulligan — in her best performance since 2009’s “An Education” — really shines as Jeanette, who wanted so much more out of life and still dreams of finding it, even if it’s not within the constraints of marriage and motherhood. Gyllenhaal isn’t given much to do except to play Jerry as a dreamer whose life isn’t turning out the he wishes it would. Oxenbould is an actor we’ll hear more from in coming years. Camp — a veteran character actor who has been on a tear since his featured performance in HBO’s “The Night Of” two years ago — somehow makes him sympathetic, even when we’re supposed to be rooting against him.
Give some credit for all of that to Dano, making his directorial debut. He skillfully depicts the blandness of the land as a reflection of the characters, with occasional bursts of color in the countryside — as if representative of the hopes of the people who populate the region.
After seeing “Wildlife,” I had to think about it for quite awhile before rendering a verdict, but in the end I recommend it with a 7.5 out of 10.