Catch fire

“Nothing funny about wildfires.”

“Nothing funny about wildfires.”

A quartet of fine performances help to make Paul Dano’s directorial debut a total win with Wildlife. The movie, about a family falling apart in the early ’60, is a sometimes uncomfortable experience. Considering the subject matter, it’s supposed to be.

Young Joe (Ed Oxenbould) is living a typical early ’60s life in Montana. Mom Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) stays at home while dad Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) works a low-paying job at the local country club. Jerry urges Joe to try out for football, while Jeanette helps him with his studies. It’s not an ideal life—money clearly could become an issue if life takes a wrong turn.

When Jerry loses his job, a family meltdown rapidly ensues. Jerry becomes despondent, while Jeanette takes a job teaching swimming. Joe gets a part-time gig at a photography shop taking pictures, as dad spirals further into depression.

When Jerry announces that he will join a firefighting team, with virtually no firefighting experience, Jeanette doesn’t take the news well. Jerry takes off into the mountains of Montana for low pay and high risk, while Jeanette and Joe fend for themselves back home. Jeanette accuses Jerry of escaping their problems and basically abandoning his wife and son. Jerry sees it as a more reputable and manly way to make money than shining a golfer’s shoes at a country club.

So the stage is set for what amounts to the best performance of Mulligan’s career as Jeanette shows signs of major insecurities and mental health issues. Jerry shows the very same signs, and Gyllenhaal is also amazing here. Their synchronized unraveling is almost proof that they were meant to be together. As Jeanette’s behavior becomes erratic and Jerry digs fire trenches in the mountains, Joe seems to be the only one in his family acting like an adult.

Dano, who co-wrote the script with his extremely talented partner, Zoe Kazan, does a beautiful and sometimes scary job of framing this picture through the eyes of Joe. We see the love for their son clearly emanating from both Jerry and Jeanette, even as their behavior ranges from pathetic to despicable. It’s the little things, like Jerry throwing a football to his boy, and mom solving a math problem for her son, that establish the undeniable family love. The couple is very likeable, even as they go off the rails.

Bill Camp, the final member of the performance quartet, is extremely effective as local businessman Warren Miller—no relation to the ski film guy—who Jeanette turns to while Jerry is away. He seems to be a decent enough guy, talking poetry with Jeanette in her living room and talking up Joe, even suggesting he’ll give Jerry a job when he comes back from the mountains. But it isn’t too long before Joe spies Warren’s naked ass through the crack of a door, signifying that Joe’s parents’ marriage is officially in dire trouble.

One of the best scenes in the film involves Jeanette driving Joe to the area where Jerry is fighting fires, before things really begin to fall apart. Jeanette tells Joe to step out of the car to take a look. We just see Joe’s face as he stares uncomfortably at the fire, as if he’s observing his family’s oncoming horrors. The shot is followed by an actual view of the mountainside as it is rapidly consumed by flames. It’s a beautifully filmed moment.

All of these performers have great faces. Gyllenhaal says so much with a glare. There’s so much fear and uncertainty behind Mulligan’s smile. Camp’s gentle expressions somehow denote a certain villainy. Oxenbould’s eyes just scream, “Adolescence is kicking my ass.”

Mulligan is most definitely in the hunt for Best Actress, while Gyllenhaal is having a fine year in supporting roles such as this and The Sisters Brothers. Oxenbould is definitely somebody to keep watching, as is Dano in directorial mode. Wildlife is loaded with talent put to good use.