It’s A Family Affair But Not The Kind Sly Stone Sang About
(If you need a memory jog on that, here’s Sly & the Family Stone
with this song, from their 1971 album There’s a Riot Goin’ On)
Review by Ken Burke
Wildlife (Paul Dano)
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): Respected actor Dano’s directorial debut here is a steady-boiling-over exploration into the deterioration of a marriage in a small-city Montana locale in 1960 where his initial voyage from behind the camera reveals a steady hand, an observant eye as the rather restrained, dull aspects of the end of the postwar-Eisenhower-era give us an environment of muted colors, functional furniture, largely empty city streets, a poorly-functioning TV that's still this family’s main connection to the world beyond their working-class-suburban-home, few extraneous characters to distract us from the growing drama about a prideful man who has trouble keeping a job, his increasingly-frustrated-wife looking to regain the kind of successful-spousal-life she assumed came with the guy she once so eagerly connected with, their reserved-but-intensely-observant-son who continues to idolize his taciturn father while being dismayed by the unconventional responses of his mother to their financial and interpersonal difficulties. That’s all I can say within the respectful bounds of no-spoiler-surprises, but whenever, however you may get a chance to find this restrained-yet-engaging-film (it’s not playing in very many theaters yet) please do so because it’s a marvelous character study where the norm of subtlety occasionally breaks down into unexpected passion, there’s lots for you to speculate on about the past and future of these characters without a lot of definitive answers being easily provided, and the foundational aspects of solid cinema—smoothly-flowing/sharply-written script, unquestioned quality acting, well-considered and executed cinematography—all combine for one of the best 2018 has yet to offer. Some of the finest examples of cinematic art (Citizen Kane [Orson Welles, 1941], The Godfather [Francis Ford Coppola, 1972], Avatar [James Cameron, 2009]) inspire frequent re-viewings as well as in-depth-articles, dissertations, entire books written about their accomplishments; others, like Wildlife, are less ambitious but still extraordinary at what they attempt, then accomplish, well worth our attention even if we only see them once. I actively encourage you to find the time for at least such a singular viewing of a marvelous, emotionally-valid response to our human condition (further, it’s easily-accessible to the older adolescents in your life who might care to see it on their own at PG-13, unlike more than half of the U.S. releases rated R since the ratings system began in 1968).
Here’s the trailer: (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)
If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this:
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.
What Happens: Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a well-meaning husband—of Jeannette (Carey Mulligan), who’s devoted to him but getting stretched to her limits of tolerance of his career decisions—and father—of Joe (Ed Oxenbound), a quiet 14-year-old in awe of Dad—whose move of the family to Great Falls, Montana in 1960 isn’t working out (another flameout apparently, although we don’t get any detailed backstory here of previous family uprootings) because his job as a groundskeeper at the local country club is terminated when manager (club golf pro [?]) Clarence Snow (Darryl Cox) decides Jerry’s getting too chummy with the golfers (not that they mind; he’s a pleasant presence for them), then fires him. Soon thereafter he’s offered the job back (likely those regular patrons spoke out on his behalf) but refuses it because he feels he was wronged for no acceptable reason.* Jerry’s self-righteous-sense of dignity doesn’t help the family income, though, as no other work seems to be locally available so he begrudgingly bows to Jeannette’s attempt to find a job where she’s in just as empty a market until her heartfelt plea to an employment agency woman lands her some minimal opportunity teaching swimming to adults at the YMCA while Joe also decides to contribute by talking his way into being a local portrait photographer’s assistant rather than wasting his after-school-time sitting on the bench for his high-school football team. (Jerry’s not enthused about that either, as he’s a pigskin fan, but bows to economic reality, even as he spends most of his days and nights smoking, drinking beer, sitting in his car watching other non-workingmen, or lying on his couch looking at grainy-reception-images on their inefficient TV, sometimes sleeping there at night too as his relationship with Jeannette continues its deterioration.)
*Where Jerry's self-image is concerned, I can’t help but think of “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” (written by Ed and Patsy Bruce in 1975, much more well known from the Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson 1978 duet album, Waylon & Willie) because of the lyrics “they’ll never stay home and they’re always alone Even with someone they love […] Them that don’t know him won’t like him and them that do Sometimes won’t know how to take him He ain’t wrong, he’s just different but his pride won’t let him Do things to make you think he’s right.” Here’s a 1990 Highwaymen version where Waylon and Willie harmonize with Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson.
All of what’s gone before in this low-key-but-increasingly-desperate-situation takes a major turn, though, when Jerry decides (with little knowledge or background except what he’s seen/read from news reports) to join firefighters battling a roaring blaze some miles from Great Falls where he’ll earn $1 an hour while risking his life, resulting in an angry-turning-away by Jeanette, ongoing concern for his father’s life from Joe. After Jerry’s been gone awhile (not calling home very often, further raising the tension levels of his family but for different reasons), Jeannette goes to interview for a job with one of her swimming students, Warren Miller (Bill Camp), who owns the local Cadillac dealership, at least that’s what Joe assumes when Dad calls one morning yet Mom’s not there (previously, Joe came home from school to find Warren visiting Jeannette, surprising her because she thought he worked that day). Connections between these adults increase when Miller invites the Brinsons to dinner (minus Jerry, still in the field, although Jeannette took Joe out of school one day to drive him to the fireline where they didn’t see Dad but Joe was astounded [in an impactful, slowly-widening shot] by the ferocity of the blaze; nevertheless, despite this attempt by Mom to pull her son away from his Dad-devotion, Joe continues to withdraw into himself, largely rebuffing the attempts of classmate Ruth-Ann [Zoe Margaret Colletti] to befriend him.) Warren tries to connect with Joe, promising him a ride in his private airplane (talking eloquently of how he once chanced a crash by turning off the motor as he glided along with a flock of geese, sensing them as angels), but Jeannette wants to dance to the record player. As she gets increasingly drunk on Warren’s wine, Joe finally convinces her to let him drive them home which she accepts after running back into Miller’s house to kiss him (not a fleeting-goodbye-peck either). ⇒On another occasion, Joe awakes to find naked Warren slipping back into Mom’s bedroom from the bathroom, then when he leaves she comes out to his car for some more parting affection. Joe’s unnerved enough by all this to pack a bag, head for the local bus station, but on the day he does the snowfall finally arrives bringing an end to the firefighting with the return of Jerry. Through conversation with his son after getting a restrained response from his wife—especially to his announcement he’d going to join the Forestry Dept. (requiring another move)—Jerry knows something’s afoot with Miller, leading Jeannette to admit she wants to take an apartment, not sure yet where their marriage is headed.⇐
⇒Jerry, however, is headed straight for Warren’s home after stopping at a gas station to fill up a can of petrol which he splashes on Miller’s porch then lights it afire. Warren comes out with a woman (his wife, if I followed a quick snatch of dialogue correctly, although we’d been given previous indications from him she was gone in a bitter divorce never to return, but maybe he was just leading Jeannette along knowing the wife would be back, another contribution to an intriguing story where all the plot details aren’t spelled out clearly, giving viewers the opportunity to surmise/discuss/explore what they think might be going on beyond what’s revealed to us—although all the dialogue at times seemed a bit muffled to both me and my wife, Nina, so either our ears are showing our ages [quite possibly] or some of these low-volume-utterances are intended more for emotional context than narrative clarity, at least for those of us in the upper-Baby Boomer-generation), confronts Jerry, but in this case the perpetrator is the one most directly injured (we hear sirens so we assume the fire dept. will keep the damage to Warren’s house at a minimum) as the fire burns one of Jerry’s legs, which he saves in the now-accumulated-snowfall. Joe came along for this exercise in retribution but runs away, straight to the police station assuming Dad will soon be there. When that doesn’t happen he returns home to find somehow Jerry and Warren came to an agreement so no charges were filled. After a time-lapse we find Jerry working in Great Falls at an appliance store, Joe still living with him, Jeannette’s moved to Portland (OR we assume) where she’s now working as a teacher (we previously learned she’s been a substitute at times) although she’s back for a short visit with Jerry and Joe. Our story ends with Joe taking them to the photo studio where he sets the camera-timer for a family portrait, his parents flanking him in the middle.⇐
So What? I’ve long had an admiration for Paul Dano as an actor, with particular admiration for his Dwayne Hoover character in Little Miss Sunshine (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, 2006), the silent-oath-teen of an impressively-wacky-family; Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007), a fallen preacher outsmarted in a land deal, then brutally beaten to death by Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis)*; Calvin Weir-Fields in Ruby Sparks (Dayton and Faris, 2012; review in our August 10, 2012 posting), an author struggling with writer’s block who wills a character into existence to love him then has to deal with emotional responsibility he must take for her actions, feelings, and confusions; the younger version of Beach Boy Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad, 2015; review in our June 10, 2015 posting)—ironically, he’s also been Pierre Bezukhov in a TV miniseries (Tom Harper, 2016) version of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, a story I finally watched an adaptation of this week from Netflix, the 1956 one directed by King Vidor, with Henry Fonda in the Pierre role (I haven’t seen Dano’s miniseries, but hopefully it’s not as romantically-flimsy as this old Hollywood adaptation [surprisingly got 3 Oscar nominations, not surprisingly no wins])—so it’s a true pleasure to see him expand his artistic abilities into directing with Wildlife, an interesting title, because the only time the word’s used in the film is when Jerry’s expressing his incredulousness at how Jeannette’s literally and emotionally moving away from him toward the end of this story, yet there he expresses to Joe what a “wild life” he’s living in his turmoil, so the singular word of this title implies something related but different: possibly an unknown, mysterious existence in the forest landscape surrounding this small city out near the Rockies emitting some sort of encouragement for all the Brinsons to transcend where they’ve allowed their present personal development to leave them, stuck short of where they all assume they could be. Dano’s also to be congratulated for his adapted screenplay (from the 1990 novel of the same name by Richard Ford), co-written with his life-partner, Zoe Kazan, also his co-star from Ruby Sparks (making the ultimate connection of their fictional characters in that delightful romantic comedy all the more valid). Praise is appropriate as well for the work of this excellent cast, especially the award-worthy-characterizations by Mulligan, although Gyllenhaal’s in his usual solid form with Oxenbound indicating here a successful continuation of his ongoing-small-and-large-screen-career.
*Day-Lewis won 1 of his 3 Best Actor Oscars for this role, the others being for My Left Foot (Jim Sheridan, 1989) and Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012), the most ever for this category, although if he remains retired as he’s said he would he’ll never be able to tie Katharine Hepburn with her 4 for Best Actress in Morning Glory (Lowell Sherman, 1933), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Stanley Kramer, 1967), The Lion in Winter (Anthony Harvey, 1968), and On Golden Pond (Mark Rydell,1981).
Bottom Line Final Comments: I’ve certainly shown a recent tendency to allot my current situation of frequently-limited-theatrical-time (where films are concerned, at least; Nina’s eagerly booked us for a good many live performances, all of which have also been enjoyable in their vastly-different-ways) to films that are available in my San Francisco Bay Area but would be hard to find for many of you in other regions even if you wanted to see them (hence, my spoiler-filled-reviews so you don’t always have to wait—possibly forget—for these films’ appearances on video) with the newest version of A Star Is Born (Bradley Cooper; review in our October 11, 2018 posting) being the only one that truly opened wide (still reeling in those ticket sales, up to $255.9 million worldwide), although I’m glad to see First Man (Damien Chazelle; review in our October 18, 2018 posting) has climbed up to about 3,500 domestic (U.S.-Canada) theaters and $75.6 million in worldwide grosses after almost 3 weeks in the marketplace while The Old Man & the Gun (David Lowery; review also in our 10/18/2018 posting) has topped the 1,000-theater and $7 million-gross marks after 5 weeks in release (as we bid Robert Redford a lovely-on-screen-adieu). So, I’m back in esoterica-land this week with Wildlife, playing in a tiny group of 18 theaters nationwide (yet, up from only 4 when it opened 2 weeks ago) so it’s taken in a mere $246,000 thus far (plus another roughly $75,000 internationally), with my hopes it’s intended for an increasingly-wider-rollout because it certainly deserves to be seen, a subtle (except for Jeannette’s occasional outbursts, Jerry’s attempt at affair-inspired-retaliation towards the end), well-shot, emotionally-authentic film much more in the realm of Realism art than Formalism entertainment. (I wish I could steer you toward a more-approachable-explanation of these cinematic traditions than David Bordwell’s extremely-academic On the History of Film Style [Harvard U. Press, 1997], but I know of nothing short of the extensive class notes of my A Stylistic History of Cinema class to be any more concise or specific so just contact me directly [email address at the end of this posting] if you’d like me to attempt some form of brief, accessible clarification of these terms.) Fortunately, I’m not the only one who thinks highly of Wildlife, with reviews catalogued by Rotten Tomatoes coming in at the superlative 97% positive level while those surveyed by Metacritic yield an 81% average score (clearly one of the higher responses from these miserly-guys for anything both they and I have reviewed this year). There are no guns, car chases, special effects, just stunning cinematography, both of the Montana countryside and the portrait-like-presentations of the major characters, often framed in isolation to further a sense of their individual identities extending the concept of Joe as an emerging portrait photographer, lending fine artistic insight into his perspective on his family’s trials.
From what little I know about Ford’s book the perspective there is clearly that of Joe (who’s 16 in the original narrative), which carries over somewhat into this filmic adaptation as we really know very little about Joe’s parents, how they may have been when things were more invested between them, what about their past lives led them to be who they’ve now become in early-middle-age (although Jeannette does admit to Joe she used to dress like a rodeo queen to lure boys [snug blouse, Levis—which she models for her son, although the baggy legs of those decades-ago-jeans don’t look very sexy compared to the skin-tight-fashions of today], notes her increasing disillusionment with life as she’s now 34 [we assume Jerry’s somewhat in the same range, as Mulligan’s actually 33 while Gyllenhaal’s approaching 38])—I admit any of this may be more detailed in the book, but you don’t expect me to read something besides newspaper comics and sports pages, do you? However, as the Brinson marriage begins to break down we get some soliloquies from each parent, either directed to Joe or to each other in Joe’s presence giving us some insight as to how they might each choose my standard trope of a Musical Metaphor to wrap up this commentary on their cinematic story, so much so I’ve decided to choose a final-look-at-Wildlife-song from the perspective of each of the major players in this drama rather than try to force these competing viewpoints into one example. I think Jerry would choose the passionate plea “Go Your Own Way” (from Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 Rumours album) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yv-wyZ_pB_Q (a 2015 performance, from about the time I saw that tour in Oakland, CA) to express his anger at Jeannette, his sense of her betrayal of their partnership just as the song’s author, Lindsey Buckingham, wrote this tune in response to his failed relationship (even as Rumours was coming together) with former-lover/now once-again-former-bandmate Stevie Nicks (they performed in Fleetwood Mac 1975-1987, 1997-2018; their personal connection goes back further),* just as I think Jerry would hope Jeannette could someday see her way back to him because “If I could Baby I’d give you my world [limited though it well may be, but] How can I When you won’t take it from me?”
*Nicks never appreciated the “Packing up Shacking up’s all you wanna do” lines even as they kept publically singing together on this personal rebuttal to her long after he wrote the song. If you want to watch their personal dynamic from about the time it was written, here’s the official music video.
Jeannette, on the other hand, could likely counter with a Musical Metaphor of “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” (written by Paul Anka for Buddy Holly & the Crickets, recorded by them in 1958, released as a big hit in early 1959 shortly after Holly’s death in an airplane crash) which I’ll give to you as a double-dose at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KIpVaYUBVjc, beginning with Holly's record followed by a live 1977 Linda Ronstadt performance (because of the inclusion of this song on her famous 1974 Heart Like a Wheel album); I use both as I like the Holly one on behalf of all the not-so-dynamic-looking-or-acting-guys (now called nerds) who’re still willing to bail out on meaningless relationships ("I’ve done everything and now I’m sick of tryin’") but I have an even-greater-need to honor with a a female voice Jeannette’s frustration with Jerry, constantly twisting her life around, leaving her in the lurch of anger and desperation with his ill-conceived-career-choices as she mistakenly thinks older, manipulative Warren might be a better option, so she’s ready to say to Jerry (in Ronstadt’s deceptively-powerful-delivery): “There you go, and baby, here am I Well, you left me here so I could sit and cry Well, golly gee, what have you done to me? Well, I guess it doesn’t matter anymore.” Joe, though, wants his parents to move past all their angst, looking forward to seeing Mom again, even for a short visit, as he hopes they can find some way to rekindle what connected them in the first place, to find a way to move past the pain they’ve caused each other, pushing them apart emotionally, physically, romantically. For Joe, I think the appropriate Musical Metaphor for what happens in Wildlife would be “Try to Remember” from the (originally Off-Broadway [where I saw it in either late 1972 or sometime in 1973], now worldwide as the longest-running-stage-musical-ever) play The Fantasticks (lyrics and play book by Tom Jones [not the British singer with the huge room key and panties collection from faithful female fans], music by Harvey Schmidt) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ycPoxZ1NPBY (the song available in many recordings, this one seems to be from the 1960 original-cast-album, sung by Jerry Orbach) because Joe would hope his parents could “Try to remember the kind of September When life was slow and oh, so mellow [… to Jerry] Try to remember the kind of September when you were a tender and callow fellow [… to Jeannette] Try to remember when life was so tender That dreams were kept beside your pillow Try to remember when life was so tender That love was an ember about to billow [… to both his parents] Deep in December, it’s nice to remember Without a hurt the heart is hollow.”
My marvelously-romantic (and all the more loveable for it, damn lucky for me) wife, Nina, thinks there’s hope Jerry and Jeanette will get back together, as does Joe; as for my often-cynical-outlook, I can’t say what might happen with this fictional couple, although it would be nice if they could solve their problems, but Dano wisely prevents you from getting an easy answer to this quandary, even as you’re welcome to mull it over until next you connect with Two Guys in the Dark.
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Here’s more information about Wildlife:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jVDdFZxAEg (23:29 interview with director Paul Dano and actor Carey Mulligan)
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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker. But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
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