Beautiful, Painful & Wonderful
What makes Wildlife such an important coming-of-age story is that it shows that coming-of-age isn’t about getting from one age to the next, but about finding one’s own way to make the necessary changes in life. The hard thing to do is very often the right thing to do. Wildlife is about a family struggling to accomplish whatever that “right thing” might be.
Fourteen year-old Joe (Ed Oxenbould) is the only child of Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) - a housewife, and Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) - a golf club attendant, in 1960s Montana. Nearby, a dangerous forest fire continuously races close to the Canadian border. When Jerry loses his job, he also loses his sense of purpose and his perceived notion of masculinity. He decides to join the cause of fighting the fire, leaving Jeanette and Joe to fend for themselves. Abruptly forced into the role of an adult, Joe learns about his mother, his parents marriage and the world around him in fascinating, shocking and often harsh ways.
If someone asked me what Carey Mulligan’s greatest performance is, I’d say it’s a solid tie between Shame and Wildlife. The level of charge Mulligan takes in unraveling the essence of Jeanette is a journey full of beauty, pain and wonder. Jerry is not an abusive husband, but it’s clear Jeanette married him because that’s what a woman of her era was expected to do. She doesn’t hate him but she feels trapped by him, and by the time Wildlife begins, they’re in a stage of silent tension. Jerry’s decision to fight the wildfires causes an explosive fight between them but deep down, she actually wants him to go.
Jeanette doesn’t know specifically what she wants in life, but Jerry’s departure allows her to examine her desires in ways that feel like a vacation rather than a chore. She gets a job as a swimming instructor and starts dressing more provocatively. She’s exploring the possibilities of an alternative future, and she sees that Joe is observing her contemplate her own happiness. She really does become a different person, someone who’s become less quiet and more unapologetically honest. She has no one else in her life, so she really unloads and confides in Joe about so many of her thoughts.
“It must be nice to know your parents were not once your parents,” Jeannette says to Joe. She’s trying to make him see her as more than simply his mother. She refers to herself in her youth as a “shoot beauty”: a beauty that happily hoped for approval rather than someone who desperately needed it. On some level, she sees her new dynamic with her son as educational for him but at some point, her new sense of freedom takes her over.
She starts an affair with Warren Miller (Bill Camp), an older man she’s teaching and she doesn’t hide it from Joe. Joe’s not immature but he’s not mature enough to understand where his mother is coming from. He’s not angry at her, he’s just very confused. It’s not that Jeanette wants to burden him, she simply shuts down in regards to secrecy. She’s not a bad mother. I don’t judge her for involving Joe but the way she involves him is questionable. As open with him as she’s become, there’s a lot she could say to him that she doesn’t.
It soon becomes clear that she doesn’t want to be with Warren long term nor does he want to be with her. He was just a necessary distraction for her as she tries to figure out what she wants. Jeanette doesn’t feel intimidated by him because he has no moral expectations of her. Neither of them have any long term calculations with one another.
By the time Jerry returns from the wildfires, Jeanette has more direction as to where she is going. She tells Jerry and Joe that she’s taken an apartment in town to rent, there’s enough room for Joe if he wants to come and she’s leaving Jerry. Shock on Jerry’s end soon turns to rage and then laughter. Joe just sits there emotionally frozen in horror, watching Jerry scream at Jeanette while she answers calmly with a blank expression.
Mulligan’s performance in this scene in particular was astonishing. She really demonstrates Jeanette’s emotional state at that point. She’s still in a period of transition. She’s leaving behind her old life and engaging fully in her own decision making. She’s never questioned her independence. She only questioned if she could get to a point where she would start using it. The sensation of not having to rely on Jerry anymore has created this sudden calm that washes over her, sort of like stretching your legs after a long flight. She needs that moment to get her bearings, to take in her new peace and she gives herself permission to do that. She doesn’t feel guilty at all and she regrets nothing.
She made the choice to have an affair but she has no emotional investment in it. The affair was a symbol of the independence she wanted and now has. She’s thinking, “I can’t change the past but I can change my future and I’m giving myself permission to do that because I deserve to be happy.” Despite Jerry’s shock, a part of him most have known this was a long time coming. He’s the kind of guy who assumes divorce has to be ugly for it to happen. It’s not allowed to be mutual. Not in the 60s. He was never going to be the bad guy and leave her so she decided to be the mature one and try to end things civilly. On that note, she succeeded where he failed.
Jerry must know she would’ve been fine having divorced a long time ago. They didn’t and now he’s lashing out at her for it. Their marriage had been over by the time the affair began. It just wasn’t acknowledged verbally. It’s a very unique and very fascinating form of infidelity. Jake Gyllenhaal and Ed Oxenbould give equally important performances but the reality is Wildlife succeeds through Mulligan’s performance. What’s so interesting about it is that it’s really Jeanette’s story but it’s shown through Joe’s perspective. His perception of what goes on is exactly the same as Jeanette’s. He just doesn’t understand what it means.
Wildlife is an important film that dives head first into marriage, infidelity and the boxes that people (particularly women) get placed into as they grow up, and how breaking out of that doesn't mean you have all the answers. I think a lot of people will appreciate Wildlife and see a lot of themselves in Jeanette. We all spend our lives figuring out what we want next. It’s better to live your life constantly growing instead of living a facade we have to stick with by the time we reach a certain age. As human beings and as men and women, we don’t have to know what we want: we just have to know what we don’t want.