Film Review: "Wildlife" Heralds In The Sex Revolution Of The 60s

The day a child realizes that his parents are human: flawed, emotional and at times irrational, is a sad day indeed. That is the moment a child begins to grow up, into a semblance of the man that he will become. 

That day comes a little earlier than some for fourteen-year-old Joe Brinson as he watches the dissolution of his parents’ marriage. Wildlife has a clear premise: set in 1960 in a small town in Montana, Jerry, a working man, is fired from his job at a country club. From this, he has a sort of mid-life crisis, wondering about his true purpose, then goes off to fight a forest fire in an attempt to find himself.

The entire film is shot through Joe’s perspective, a usually taciturn kid, but also adopting that principle some may know all to well: better to say nothing than say the wrong thing. Instead he prefers watching: watching his loving mother prepare dinner at the end of a long day, watching his father get fired and watching his parents fight about Jerry’s choice to go off and fight a wildfire. It is in the gaps, in the silences of what Joe sees and does not say that much of the film operates in and on. 

At the turn of the decade, fresh from the 1950s’ enforcement of the classic American dream: father, mother, child and white picket fence around their green front lawn, Jerry is bogged down by that patriarchal expectation of himself to properly provide for his family on his single income. Perhaps it is in pursuit of this expectation that he has moved his family around several places in the country, trying to find good work that he can sustain. 

At the outset of the Brinsons’ idyllic family picture, Jea​nette is the perfect housewife. She wears dresses, even in the house, and makes a home cooked meal for her family every night. She quit her job as a substitute teacher to raise her son, though he’s already fourteen and does not need much more raising, and likely in part to feed Jerry’s belief that he alone can provide for the family. 

When Jerry is fired, they take it in completely dichotomous ways. Jerry’s pride is hurt, even when the country club offers the job back he refuses, yet tries to find the motivation to work again. Jeanette eagerly enters back into the workforce, tenaciously doing her best to keep her family afloat and fed while Jerry tries to regain his pride. 

That is when the forest fire presents itself. From what information the film gives you, forest fires are common in Montana due to the dry climate, and they rage on for miles and months on end until it snows. Laborers throughout the state pitch in to fight the forest fires, albeit paid a measly $1 ($8.47 in 2018) an hour. Again when Jerry decides to join a team of men to attempt to fight the forest fires, his attitude diverges from his wife’s. 

Jeanette, to her credit, has done all she can to put food on the table. After following her husband to several states, she feels he is abandoning them once and for all, not believing he will survive or return to them by choice. We watch the ensuing fight burst like fireworks, with fire and emotion and reason flying out the window as both Jerry and Jeanette try to get their points across, at times unfairly dragging Joe into the mess of it. It was like watching my own parents fight; it was so real, the raw anger laced with unspoken meaning years in the making. 

The silent way Joe takes it all in, has been taking it all in, is only too recognizable. How can a fourteen-year-old kid, not young enough to keep the ugliness of marriage from, but not old enough to have any say in the situation, say something to keep his parents together? If you have ever been the sole child weathering your parents’ conflicting energies, you would understand Joe’s position very much.

In Jerry’s absence the family fractures, and in the cracks we see how Jeanette had chafed under her role as a housewife, had in her youth hung out outside rodeos hoping the cowboys would pick her up. She resented dropping out of college after getting pregnant with Joe, which is probably why she has such high hopes of her son, telling him once that working at a railroad is not good enough for him. 

It is difficult to understand why Jerry decides to run away from his problems and join the impossible fight against a forest fire, until Jeanette drives Joe to the side of a fire one day. Just the sound of the rippling, hungry flames and falling timbers is enough to intimidate. The camera slowly pans from the flames reflected in Joe’s honest eyes to the burning forest itself, achingly slow in the enlarging frame to capture the full scope of the fire’s rage. In the face of this image, it is a bit easier to get into Jerry’s frame of mind. Oppressed by society’s expectations to be the man in the house and by his own pressures to work to feed his family, Jerry leaves it all behind, silencing the noise of his thoughts by the physical labor of fighting a fire. In doing honest, hard work and in the physical chaos around him, Jerry searches for clarity. 

On the other side of the front, Jeanette searches for a life without Jerry. It is unclear whether she fears that Jerry has grown tired of her and married life, or if it is Jeanette herself who has outgrown marriage. At first she seeks answers outside of herself, such as in the wealthy Warren Miller. Jeanette embarks on an affair with him; in some sense, this may be Jeanette’s attempt to survive without her first husband who she loved, finding another who can provide comfort in the form of money, not for the heart. 

She flaunts her affair to her son as if he is her husband’s proxy, equally trying to keep her honest and bring her back into the family, but also as punishment for the lengths she must go to try to find an alternative life for herself. Joe to his credit brings up his father any chance he gets, desperately trying to keep his parents together even in one’s absence. In recognizing his parents’ strengths and weaknesses, Joe slowly understands that sometimes love alone is not enough to keep a family together. Ed Oxenbould is wonderfully promising as Joe, expressing everything we need to know in his blue eyes and the tensing of his face. I sincerely hope one day Oxenbould will come back in the main role of a film to blow us all away. Best known for her spectacular turn in An Education, Jeanette is played by the Carey Mulligan, in her usually muted, powerful way. Jeanette is strong-minded, persistent and motivated, yet faithless in her husband and selfish, immediately asking “What about me?” when her husband leaves for the fire. Jake Gyllenhaal, as always, masterfully brings Jerry to life with his quiet strength and energy, making him impulsive and quick tempered, yet charming, personable and dreamy.

In terms of breaking down the gender roles of the 1950s, Jeanette and Jerry usher in modernity. Jerry does not settle down for a humdrum job to get food in the table like a 1950s man may have. He literally goes to the ends of the earth searching for a sustainable career he’s passionate about and dedicated to, a pursuit many millennials would sympathize with. Jeanette has an underlying sexuality, and in the end finds the answer to her alternative life without her husband in herself. Her shift from a housewife to a career woman is exquisitely reflected in her wardrobe, transitioning from floral dresses and full skirts to a scandalous halter dress to pants. 

In the wake of the #MeToo movement that consumed last year’s fall film season, it is wonderful to see alternative forms of femininity in this year’s fall season. Mulligan and Gyllenhaal stun as this couple, peeling back layers to reveal that Jeanette is not a damsel in distress and Jerry is not only a controlling husband. As the film and its characters continually fight against societal norms, it pushes us to question and do the same.