Life get combustible when family secrets and character defects drive the interpersonal interactions of the people in the family system. Taking the inventory of the three family members is easy to do as each of the “players” reveal themselves in very consistent ways. Set in 1960, the role definitions are deeply rooted in the classic 1950’s model with a stay-at-home dutiful wife, a hard drinking blue collar “large and in charge” dad and a seen but not heard only child who the dad is living thru. The roles are classic but never stale.
Wildlife is a 2018 American drama film directed and co-produced by Paul Dano (in his directorial debut), from a screenplay by Dano and Zoe Kazan, based on the 1990 novel of the same name by Richard Ford. The film stars Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal (who also co-produced), Ed Oxenbould, and Bill Camp.
Set in 1960, Jeannette and Jerry Brinson have recently moved to Great Falls, Montana, with their teenage son Joe. Tensions build after Jerry is fired from a job as a golf pro at a country club. The firing was ego driven. He is offered his old job back but refuses out of false pride, and instead of looking for work, he sleeps in his car and watches the local firefighting efforts against a forest fire raging in nearby mountains. He is lost in his own grievance generated head wallowing in self-pity fueled by a lost cause of resentments and alcohol. He is the walking embodiment of the old Alcoholic Anonymous saying, “he’s an egomaniac with an inferiority complex”.
To support the family as Jerry fains looking for a job, Jeannette against her husband wished takes a job as a swimming instructor, while the son Joe works at a local photography studio giving up football which he never wanted to play but dad pushed. One day, Jerry decides to take a low-paying job fighting the forest fire, which upsets Jeannette and worries Joe. Jeannette speaks openly about her strained marriage with Jerry to Joe, and the stress of the situation takes a minor toll on Joe’s school life. He now becomes the keeper of his mom’s wellness.
While Jerry is away, Jeannette becomes romantically involved with one of her students, Warren Miller, a prosperous older man who owns an automobile dealership and is still married but separated. Joe is repeatedly left alone as Jeannette spends time with Miller, initially under the guise of being employed by him, and Jeannette opens up about her dissatisfaction and restlessness. One night, after a dinner hosted by Miller, Miller dances with a drunken Jeannette and kisses her; he spends the night at Joe’s house, which a shocked Joe discovers later that night. After Miller leaves, Joe confronts Jeannette about the affair. Jeannette does not admit to caring about Miller or no longer loving Jerry but concedes that the affair will make their life financially better, and she implores Joe to think of a better plan for her. He tells her that he cannot. The mom throughout the movie uses her son as a sounding board for her evaporating marriage and her own discontent turning him firstly into a surrogate husband and lastly into being solely responsible for her marriage, knowing that if her son doesn’t keep her infidelity a secret the family will end as a unit. Truth be told the teen never stands a chance.
Jerry returns and is met with a lukewarm reception by Jeannette, who reveals that she has begun renting an apartment in town, and Joe is free to stay with her. Devastated and suspecting an affair, Jerry guilts Joe to admit to his mom’s relationship. Furious upon hearing that Miller slept with Jeannette in the family house, Jerry drunkenly goes to Miller’s house and tries to set it ablaze. Miller catches him in the act and confronts him, admonishing him about his behavior with Joe present. When an injured Jerry pleads with Joe to help him escape before the police arrive, Joe flees on foot to the police station, where he discovers his father has not been arrested. Returning to the house, he learns from his dad that Miller will not press charges, but his parents’ marriage is over. For Miller it was all about saving face.
Jeannette moves to Portland, Oregon, to teach, while Joe lives peacefully with Jerry, who has become a successful salesman. Jeannette returns spontaneously one weekend to a strained, but polite, reunion, where she learns that her son has been promoted at work and is on the honor roll. Joe takes his parents to the photography studio, where he requests that they take a family portrait for his sake. An uncomfortable Jeannette is initially reluctant, but accepts, and the family takes one final portrait together. A fitting but sad ending to a family unit.
As I watched this system implode all I could do was wonder if this was a true story, maybe written through the lenses of the teen boy who was now a successful photographer who was trying to recapture what went wrong in his youth. That hypothetical line of thinking also led me to wonder what effect his childhood had on his adult life. His experience as a boy certainly qualified him for an adverse adult life. Both his parents abused alcohol. His mom used sex as currency. Both his parents had distorted world views of marriage and both his parents created a wide range of emotional triangles within the family system that had to scare this child now man forever. No one gets out of a system like that unscathed. But then again none of us did either.