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‘Wildlife’: Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan are stuck in crumbling marriage

Paul Dano directs 'Wildlife," adapted from the Richard Ford novel about a 1960s golf pro (Jake Gyllenhaal) as his faltering marriage (to Carey Mulligan).

Carey Mulligan and Ed Oxenbould in 'Wildlife'.
Carey Mulligan and Ed Oxenbould in 'Wildlife'.Read moreIFC Films

I think everyone, including me, looks forward to the day when I can get through one week of movie reviews without making some horrifying pun, but there are times when I feel like it's simply out of my hands.

Take Wildlife. Here's a movie about a woman who wants to re-tee her marriage to a failing golf pro, and the woman is played by an actress named Mulligan.

Am I not supposed to notice?

The Mulligan in question is Carey, playing Jeanette Brinson, an unhappy wife and mother in the 1960s who has followed her husband Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) from job to job across the Midwest. When his latest situation turns sour, he impulsively decides to head into the mountains to fight the forest fire raging some miles away.

For a buck an hour.

It's too much for Jeanette, and Mulligan is good here, giving us the unspoken sense that this is one in a long line of impulsive moves by her husband. We understand why Jeanette sees Jerry off by wishing him the opposite of well. The fallout from his departure is more complicated. As soon as he leaves, she starts to behave as if she's not married. Or a mother to 14-year-old Joe (Ed Oxenbould), who looks on with astonishment as "mom" turns into a woman he doesn't recognize.

Joe is a smart, observant adolescent just now old enough to begin to understand mom and dad as individuals with lives outside their role as his parents. And at that precise moment, he's seeing their marriage is falling apart.

Oxenbould is good at being watchful, and sells us on Joe as a quietly desperate onlooker in a drama he can't influence or control. He doesn't understand everything about the adult world, but knows it's probably not a good thing that mom is suddenly wearing lipstick, smoking Lucky Strikes, and listening to Connie Francis (Lipstick and Luckys – if that wasn't a Connie Francis song, it should have been).

Certainly he knows he'd rather be just about anywhere than accompanying his mother to dinner at the home of the lecherous owner of a local car dealership (Bill Camp), where his mother says she's now working. When the suspicious and resourceful Joe checks out her story, he finds that folks at the dealership have no idea who she is.

So what's mom doing all day while he's at school?

The answer is in Mulligan's complex turn as Jeanette, a kind of June Cleaver whose Stovetop stuffing has boiled over. She's lost confidence in marriage, lost interest in keeping up appearances, and most subversively of all, lost interest in being a good parent.

To her, Joe is more like a captive friend, listening to her talk wistfully about her single days, the diminished promise of her youth, the car dealer's posh house.

It's a bold and borderline eccentric performance by Mulligan (so good in An Education). She is playing a woman who grew up attending rodeos, presumably in the Midwest or West, but she's got a posh  accent that sounds like Joan Bennett playing an heiress in a 1930s comedy. In a way, though, it helps feed the dynamic of her unraveling character, and Joe's quiet terror at feeling his maternal foundation give way beneath his feet.

And we've seen enough of Gyllenhaal's brooding, impulsive Jerry to know that things are not likely to improve when – and if – he returns from fighting the fire. A fire, by the way, that looms over the story (adapted from a Richard Ford novel) like, like, well like a metaphor. It's an out-of-control blaze, spreading growing, threatening to burn everything in its path. We wait to see if it is merely destructive, or if it starts the conditions for regrowth and regeneration.



  1. Directed by Paul Dano. With Carey Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould, Jake Gyllenhaal and Bill Camp. Distributed by IFC FILMS.

  2. Running time: 104 minutes

  3. Parents guide: PG-13

  4. Playing at: Ritz East