Movies 11 October 2018 | 12:09

LFF review: ‘Wildlife’ soars over the human condition

11 October 2018 12:09

Great Falls, Montana, 1960: Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould) is a bookish 14-year-old, uncertain about whether he enjoys football as much as his father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) thinks he should, tentatively interested in a girl at school, comfortable in the home life overseen by his mother, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan).

Into this calm pool of modest American aspiration, fate hurls a stone of capricious cruelty as Jerry is fired from his job at a golf course for being over-familiar with the customers.

This ignites in him a bitterness at the way in which ‘small people’ are treated – a stubbornness that, it is hinted, has forced the family to up sticks and move more than once in the past.

Directed by Paul Dano and based on Richard Ford’s eponymous novel (1990), Wildlife – which is in competition at the London Film Festival – shifts swiftly from a chamber piece to turbulent psychodrama.

Masculinity is its initial theme, as Jerry, unmanned by his treatment, refuses to take back his old job and heads off to fight the forest fires that fast become a vivid metaphor for the dangers that lurk at the border of all civilisation and emotional stability.

With Jerry gone, Joe steps up to the plate, learning how to fix up the house and revealing to his mother that he knows how to drive. She, on the other hand, falls to pieces, reverting in her clothing and behaviour to the flirtatious young woman she was when she met Jerry.

This, and her unconcealed fears for the future, attract the lascivious attentions of an older and richer man, Warren Miller (Bill Camp), who thinks nothing of seducing her in front of her appalled son. The scenes involving this pathetic transaction, seen through the teenager’s eyes, are superbly accomplished and horribly uncomfortable.

As if to school Joe in the forces she is trying to keep at bay, Jeanette takes her son to see the fires – Oxenbould’s stricken face as he surveys the flames is one of the highlights of a terrific performance – and tells him that not all of the wildlife in the forests makes it out alive. The sequence is risky, reducing the film’s bleak core to a very explicit metaphor – but Dano, assisted by the majestic terrain of Montana, gives it mythic punch.

Jerry’s return drives the film towards its draining conclusion, which it would be quite wrong to reveal. Appalled by his wife’s betrayal, he sneers that ‘It’s a wild life!’ – an example of the word games with which the excellent screenplay by Dano and Zoe Kazan is studded.

Jeanette tells her now-estranged husband that Joe is too young to understand. But the whole point is that he isn’t – not any more. Though Wildlife soars over the human condition to survey the difficulties adults face trying to hold even the most basic of lives together, its most compelling subject is the many ways in which their children suffer the consequences of their flailing and failing, the irredeemable sin that this involves, and the price that the young always pay.