In 2019, Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story was released by Netflix to great acclaim. Wholly deserving of it, the film tackled its subject matter of a family going through a split with such an impeccable hand.
Just a year prior, a film was released that tackled the very same subject matter albeit differently. Paul Dano’s Wildlife — Dano’s directorial debut. Both films feature tremendous performances from their leads and handle their subject material really well, though Wildlife chronicles the collapse of its family from start to end and Marriage Story throws us straight into the split.
Between the two films, Marriage Story is easily the better made film. Its focused script and Baumbach’s direction really bring the film to a new level, while Wildlife suffers from a script that meanders at times.
The choice for Wildlife to follow a family through its collapse from the beginning to the end just meant that from the get-go it would not have been able to dive deep into the material in as significant a way as Marriage Story did.
Wildlife isn’t a bad film. It just isn’t as polished as Marriage Story. Personally, between both films, while I recognise that Marriage Story is the better executed picture, I like Wildlife more. And that might be down to how certain shades of its story seem to mirror that of my own life.
You know what they call trees in a forest fire? Fuel. You know what they call the trees left up when the fires go by? They call them the standing dead.
Wildlife follows the Brinson family who live in 1960s Montana. Jerry Brinson, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, loses his job and the family is thrown into financial instability. His wife Jeanette, played by the phenomenal Carey Mulligan, offers to look for a job to help tide the family over while Jerry searches. He begrudgingly agrees. Their son Joe, played by Ed Oxenbound, offers to do the same but is met with resistance from Jerry who wants him to focus on football instead.
It all sounds typical enough, and a boring chain of events even but it is this familiarity that I find the strongest connection to with the film. Not every family breaks down because of a cheating spouse, or something more “exciting” like being in a gang. Most disintegrate in quiet ways like this.
Things get worse when Jerry loses his purpose in life and doesn’t know what he wants anymore. He refuses to work at most places, and he rejects an offer to go back to his old job, because of his bruised ego. Allowing his ego to come in the way of his duty to his family, Jerry ultimately chooses to run off to volunteer to help fight a forest fire.
Literally leaving his family to fend for themselves in their time of need.
These threads hit very close to home for me, it was almost like Dano and co-writer Zoe Kazan looked at my life and made it into a film (I know they didn’t). My father similarly lost his job and very much like Jerry, refused to take up any job to help tide the family through. He let his ego keep him from doing what he should have and at the same time it felt like he was losing his purpose.
I could tell that not being able to support us made him depressed but he refused to put aside his pride for the greater good. And then one day, he too disappeared leaving the rest of us to fend for ourselves.
To see the almost-exactly-the-same collapse happen on-screen to the Brinsons was ruminative, depressing even. It made me think about my family’s quiet collapse — that in those moments it was almost impossible to tell, until it was too late. Looking back, the signs were all there and we should have known.
About mid-way through the film, Jeanette brings Joe out to the forest fires to see what Jerry picked over his family. She says the line “You know what they call trees in a forest fire? Fuel. You know what they call the trees left up when the fires go by? They call them the standing dead”. It is quite possibly the best metaphor for a collapsed family.
The forest is the family. Green, lush, tall, and strong even. Until a fire breaks out, slowly engulfing every inch of the forest. Like a series of events that escalates and builds until it rips a family apart. And what’s left? People, this time as individuals. The hollow shell of family. A stark reminder of what once was, just like the standing dead.
There might be a case to be made about Jerry running off to fight fires in an attempt to find his purpose but if there is one, I personally think that it isn’t going to be a strong one. While him losing his job was something out of his control, everything he did after was just irresponsible. He essentially forced his family into a corner and then left.
While I can sympathise the desire to find oneself, I sympathise with Jeanette’s anger and frustrations way more. To intimately know what that felt like made me angrier at Jerry for abandoning his family the way he did. To fail so spectacularly as a father and as a husband in the name of himself was just the most irresponsible and selfish thing anyone can do to their loved ones.
The side plot of Jeanette doing anything for the well-being of what’s left of her family was hard to watch. It felt like the film tried very hard to paint the collapse of the Brinson family as the fault of both Jerry and Jeanette.
It made Jeanette do things that felt manipulative, and it was not easy to watch. The film flipped Jeanette as we knew her at the start to a different person with this subplot and it personally didn’t sit right with me. The entire thing felt like a twisted fantasy and like an idea that was thought up far removed from the main plot.
It is said that when a family, or even marriage fails, no one is blameless. I don’t think that’s always the case (conversation for another time) but the film seemed determined to make it so and pushed Jeanette into being someone she shouldn’t have. It weakened her character to seemingly make this collapse more “fair”.
Watching a film like this is never easy. Many films have explored the idea of a collapsed family, and might have even done it better, but that’s not to say that Wildlife is without merit.
The film takes a soft approach to its subject matter, even through the use of its cinematography and sound. Never does it try to hit you over the head with what it wants to show. Every shot is immaculate, the film is coloured in a way that evokes a sense of calm, performances are never brash but beautifully nuanced, and the subtle score adds to the serenity of the film.
It works wonders in the film’s favour, creating a melancholy that touches your heart but doesn’t rip it apart.