2018, PG-13, 104 min. Directed by Paul Dano. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould, Bill Camp.

REVIEWED By Danielle White, Fri., Nov. 2, 2018

Have you ever looked at a photograph of your grandparents or other married relatives and wondered what their life together was really like? Maybe you’ve heard stories, but it’s nothing like being there. Paul Dano’s directorial debut is a visually stunning living portrait of a midcentury marriage falling apart at a time when that was sort of unthinkable, or so we think.

Set in Montana in 1960 during devastating, barely controlled wildfires, Jerry (Gyllenhaal) loses his job as a golf pro, mopes around for a few weeks, and then runs off to work fighting the fires for minimum wage, leaving his wife Jeanette (Mulligan) and 14-year-old son Joe (Oxenbould) in a precarious position. Jeanette has little identity outside that of wife and mother, and, occasionally, substitute teacher. We get the impression they’re a flighty set; Jerry has a habit of uprooting the family and moving somewhere else when things don’t go his way. There’s a scene that sticks out to me where he’s sitting outside the house drinking a beer and staring off into space while Jeanette is inside doing the dishes. In one frame, we get a lot of information: a man with repressed depression self-medicating with booze. Once he’s out of the picture, Jeanette undergoes a bold transformation, but one that is also messy and desperate.

Mulligan gives the performance of a lifetime as two halves of the same woman – in a lot of ways, the movie is really about her. Up to the point of Jerry’s departure, she’s sweet and overly optimistic, the picture of a perfect housewife. Afterward, she’s something more wild, an animal left to wander the burned-out hillside that was once home. Joe plays the part of a passive observer, nearly emotionless through it all. He’s at the age of being body awkward – his parents are either using him to their own ends or he’s in their way somehow. His character feels a lot like Paul Dano’s in There Will Be Blood. Joe is thrust into the adult world: He gets an afterschool job at a photography studio; He fields his mother’s rather frank talk about men. The narrative is told from his point of view, via snippets of overheard conversation or the camera peering down a hallway, yet he’s such an inactive participant in the goings-on that I started to wonder if there was something wrong with him. If he were a younger boy, this may have worked a little better. But maybe he’s not the person telling the story; maybe he’s just a kid taking a photograph.

For an interview with director Paul Dano, read "Torn Apart by Wildlife," Oct. 26.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Wildlife
Local Critters Struggle Through Wet Weather
Local Critters Struggle Through Wet Weather
Austin, Hill Country's animals getting hammered by rains, other harsh conditions

Richard Whittaker, July 13, 2007

More Jake Gyllenhaal Films
Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant
War flick about the US exit from Afghanistan sabotaged by a weak script

Dex Wesley Parra, April 21, 2023

Strange World
Disney animated adventure revamps pulp fun with a story of fathers and sons

Richard Whittaker, Nov. 25, 2022

More by Danielle White
Fathers of Football
Oklahoma high school football documentary could have gone deeper

April 26, 2019

Teen Spirit
Pop fable never feels like a smash hit

April 19, 2019


Wildlife, Paul Dano, Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould, Bill Camp

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle