Wildlife’s signature image is of a husband and wife pensively looking at each other across an empty chair. Momentarily, their only child will occupy that chair, but his presence will not unite them. Instead, it will only amplify the gulf between the two.
Set in 1960 Montana, Wildlife finds this suburban family caught in an existential crisis. Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) has been terminated from his position at the local country club. The official cause: “overstepping his boundaries with the clients,” which Jerry interprets as being too friendly—he was actually gambling with the golfers. Emasculated, Jerry quietly spirals. Refusing to take a position beneath his station, i.e., bagging groceries, Jerry decides to fight a massive forest fire, leaving Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and Joe (Ed Oxenbould) wondering if and when he will return.
With uncertain financial stability, Jeanette looks first for work and then for another provider: a used car salesman (Bill Camp). Whether their affair is strictly sexual or has monetary incentives for Jeanette is unclear; what is clear is that Jeanette has no interest in a June Cleaver sort of life. And though Jerry might think himself a Ward, he’s far from it.
Wildlife doesn’t move like other movies. It’s honest, blunt, and much more novelistic in its approach. That causes the narrative to wander at moments. Still, it also gives this directorial debut from Paul Dano—working from a script co-written with Zoe Kazan, based on Richard Ford’s novel—a particular mid-century flavor, one that’s bound to linger.