Wildlife Is Superb — and a Major Moment for Carey Mulligan

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Carey Mulligan. Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

We’ve waited a long time for the major Carey Mulligan screen performance that had to be coming, and here it is, at last, in Paul Dano’s directorial debut Wildlife, which had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

Mulligan plays Jeanette Brinson, the mother of the film’s 14-year-old protagonist, Joe (Ed Oxenbould), and the wife of Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose loss of a golf-pro job in an early scene leads to his family’s fracture. Because Jerry can’t hold jobs for long (he claims he’s “too personable”), the family has moved around often and now rents a barely affordable house at the edge of Rockies, in Montana. (The year is 1960.) Too proud to bag groceries (or even take his job back when it’s offered), Jerry for some reason (to efface himself? to escape the gaze of his wife and son?) decides to join the distant brigades battling massive wildfires in the mountains. Jeanette receives the news of his decision not just with shock but uncharacteristic rage, as well as something else — a desperation suggesting that her very identity is imperiled.

Zoe Kazan co-wrote the adaptation of Richard Ford’s novel with her Ruby Sparks co-star (and boyfriend) Dano, and it’s brilliantly attuned to the roiling psyches of its three main characters. The role of Jeanette is a great pedestal for her friend, Mulligan. In early scenes, Jeanette is herself playing a part: the loyal, beautifully coiffed ’50s homemaker who soothes her husband’s anxieties, however much he screws up. As strong as Jeanette appears, though, her persona has been contrived to fit her particular time, place, and culture. With bills that can’t be paid and a spouse who has effectively abandoned her and her son, she gravitates toward a much older man, Warren Miller (Bill Camp), a rich widower who’s unnervingly comfortable taking advantage of her — even in front of her son.

Mulligan’s voice in Wildlife reminded me of Annette Bening’s: low, husky, and lived-in, but with even more upper range when the pressure mounts. In the course of an amazing and horrifying sequence, a dinner at Miller’s house to which Joe has been invited, Jeanette launches into a drunken, seductive dance: She’s telling Miller she’s available, and her son, too. Mulligan conveys both the shame and Ann-Margret–like exuberance of Jeanette’s surrender — if she’s going to do it, she’s thinking, she’s not going to hold back. Later, she will ask her son, “If you’ve got a better plan for me, tell me. I don’t have one.” Joe is too stricken by what he has seen that night to answer. He’s working part-time as an assistant to a photographer who does family portraits and strives to capture an American ideal — how people want to be. Joe’s plan would be for his father to come home and be back with his wayward mom.

Wildlife would not have been out of place in the movies I saw my first time at the Sundance Film Festival, in 1988. The derisive label for a lot of indies at that time (it was before Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Reservoir Dogs) was “deadbeat regionalism,” with lots of kids coming of age on farms. Maybe this is that sort of film, but it’s smarter, riskier, better than anything I saw that year. It’s a movie in which everyone comes of age.

I like Gyllenhaal better here than in his showier roles. He hasn’t completely figured out Jerry, which I mean as a high compliment — Gyllenhaal sometimes pins his characters down too much. The key is that Jerry hasn’t figured himself out. He wanted to be a pro golfer, he wanted to be a big man, and he has shrunk to nothing in his own eyes. Seizing on the job of a faceless auxiliary firefighter living in tents alongside other men (many of them long jobless) is a way of burning off his ego as a start for reinventing himself. He works wonderfully with Oxenbould, who’s the opposite of your standard coming-of-age juvenile. Oxenbould has an odd, grown-up face — his hairline is starting to recede — that recalls the young Vincent Kartheiser. I grew to like watching him. His worry is almost audible — you can feel his heart beating faster and faster.

The final plaudit goes to the actor in one of the most thankless roles imaginable. Bill Camp seems able to take any part and make you wish you could see a whole movie about him. His Warren Miller isn’t a standard predator. Miller is patient and lets Jeanette come to him. He’s so lacking in shame that he doesn’t seem uncomfortable around Joe. His cynicism is firm. The boy will learn this is how things are. But Camp doesn’t make Miller boorish or unkind, so despite your repulsion you can’t quite hate him. Camp’s performance shouldn’t just be seen. It’s so good it should be taught.

Along with Mulligan’s, of course. Years ago, before An Education, I saw her in as the young actress Nina in a British production of The Seagull. She was excellent in the first three acts, but I steeled myself for the fourth, which is where Ninas play their semi-mad scene and — in my experience — founder badly trying to swerve with the character’s psyche. Mulligan killed it. Every hairpin emotional turn was true, and Nina didn’t seem like an overdramatic young woman, but someone who’d found her true voice at the moment when her acting career was over. Mulligan has had some good roles since then: An Education made her a star, and although she wasn’t an ideal Daisy Buchanan, she made sense of the character’s final, wrenching surrender to her husband. But I think Jeanette is her true big-screen breakthrough.

There are a few times that Dano tries too hard: an odd angle he doesn’t need, a too-self-conscious evocation of the American past. But he gets everything that matters right. He gives his actors space so that the rhythms are their own, and they hold us through the tough final scenes and bittersweet ending. This is a superb film.

Wildlife Is Superb — and a Major Moment for Carey Mulligan