By Christopher Sharrett.
Among the few films that impressed me last season was Paul Dano’s first film as director, Wildlife, based on a book (which I have not read) by Richard Ford. The film received some applause when it opened, then vanished, to be covered over by the rubbish of the film industry. I hesitated to write about it after a single viewing. The film has just now appeared on DVD/Blu-ray, and then only in a Region 2 edition, emphasizing the necessity of having an all-region player, since Europe seems most interested in giving our film culture to us.
Wildlife is first and foremost the best film I have seen in its representation of the late 50s-early 60s (it in fact takes place in 1960: we hear Kennedy campaigning on the radio about “getting America moving again”). Of course I am using my own memory as a reference point, but I think we can agree that the film stays clear of the “retro” style so popular in rendering of the postwar period. The cartoonish colors, suggesting a satisfied and comfortable nation prospering to the limit, aren’t here; while films can make fun of 50s mores, they in general retrieve the period as the model of suburban capitalist society, representing a time of innocence to which all would like to return. I want to inject here a small piece of reading, Marty Jezer’s The Dark Ages: Life in the United States – 1945-1960. It is the handiest, most readable book about the real politics and economics of this era.
The palette of Wildlife is decidedly muted, all browns and grays, with a few dingy reds here and there. Much of the film seems to take place at night; the daylight scenes are so overcast as to give the film an unrelenting sense of depression. The furniture is of the forties or earlier, suggesting that the U.S. is something other than a consumer paradise, a key issue of the story.
Jerry and Jeanette Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaall and Carey Mulligan) try to get by in northern Montana; they have moved about quite a bit, less to find work than please Jerry with a job that corresponds with his inflated sense of self. He works as a “golf pro,” a term which that industry gives to someone who is essentially a servant, cleaning the shoes of clients. When Jerry doesn’t show the proper deference, he’s fired – no more than ten minutes into the film. Jeanette is a prototypical “housewife,” cooking and tending the home, but with a degree of resentment that becomes full-blown as the film progresses, not that her consciousness ever expands. The film emphasizes that the female has no place to go.
Jeanette tells her husband of an opening in a local market, to which he responds, “I didn’t come to Montana to bag groceries.” He seems to have gone there with dreams of the Wild West in mind; perhaps he thought he would be part of a cattle drive a la Lonesome Dove. The evidence is his volunteering to fight forest fires raging in the north – of course, he has no experience.
Jerry’s work takes him from home, no doubt the real reason for wanting to take on such a dangerous job. Jeanette and their sixteen-year-old son Joe (the excellent Ed Oxenbould) are left alone for much of the narrative. What transpires is one of the most courageous – yet commonsensical, avoided by Hollywood because it contains so much psychological truth – portrayals of mother-son relations ever on film. Jeanette turns her son into a husband (at one point somewhat literally), dumping on the son all of her neuroses, along with resentment of Jerry. She has a very fragile sense of self, covered over with a haughty manner. Joe watches the spectacle – and his parents’ verbal bouts before and after Jerry’s departure – with a stare that shows intelligence, but his mouth is always slightly open, conveying fear, anxiety, and amazement.
Jeanette begins an affair with Warren Miller (Ed Camp), an obese used car dealer with a yen for big cigars, clearly brandished as phallus, thinking it seduces Jeanette and intimidates Joe. Joe continues to be astounded and repulsed, but always non-verbally, his body language quiet enough not to upset his self-absorbed mother.
Jeanette and Joe go to Miller’s for dinner, Jeanette clad in a revealing backless “cocktail dress” of the period. Jeanette puts on a cha-cha record and asks – then tells – her son to “dance with [your]mother.” The incest urge is now transparent, as much to frighten the boy who is the symbol of the neglectful father as it is to pleasure the frustrated mother. One waits for Jeanette to ask Joe to rub her feet. The dinner contains some remarkable drama, and fine work by all players. Miller gives life advice to Joe, all of which is tired hogwash. His seduction of Jeanette contains unintended insults that remind her of her class origins, causing a moment of anger. When mother and son leave this nightmare, Jeanette tells Joe to wait in the car as she goes back to fuck Miller, hoping, it seems, that this pig will assist her non-existent career in a backwater town (in an interesting and so-truthful moment, Joe quietly inspects Miller’s bedroom, finding liquor and a condom).
Jerry returns from the fire in time to have a new confrontation with his wife. The talk is of divorce, observed anxiously once again by Joe. The marriage dribbles away, Jeanette living elsewhere, but personal situations are unchanged in this dreary, static universe. In the meantime, Joe has taken a job as a photographer’s assistant. In the film’s final moment, Joe convinces his parents to sit for a portrait. After a little coaxing, they agree, sitting in the studio in front of a bucolic backdrop (the moment is captured in the film’s poster image). The two are together yet not, separated by a couple of feet containing a third seat, which Joe takes after setting a timer on the studio camera.
Thus Joe has a consoling image of togetherness – of a family that should never have happened. One could argue that Dano is rougher on the wife-mother than his other characters, but it strikes me that he doesn’t dehumanize anyone. It makes sense that a neurotic like Jeanette should couple with a neurotic like Jerry. There is nothing “epic” about this family, no evocations of Athenian tragedy. The Brinsons are ordinary, emblems of the misery of American life and its vaporous “family values.” It becomes one of the more expansive, intelligent films of the moment.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International.