The same could be said of Joe's reaction to his mother's path of destruction in Paul Dano's directorial debut Wildlife. The film is about the changing roles of a nuclear family in 1960s, but only tangentially. Wildlife is told chiefly through the eyes of Joe, who is unaware of social shifts of the decade, and can only witness and feel what is happening to his family before him.
Jeanette is devoted-- supportive in every way and perfectly fulfilling all that the role requires of her as a good mother and wife. This is perhaps why she reacts the way she does when her husband lets her down in conforming to his role of what a good husband should do in providing for the family. Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), loses his job and decides to take on low-paying and dangerous work of fighting wildfires, ostensibly abandoning his family to do so.
Mulligan does an excellent job of playing an unmoored Jeanette, confident as she charges forward, and yet completely uncertain of what her identity is. She's done her part, but what happens when her partner doesn't? She takes on the role of an independent woman, but she's not sure of what that means for her or if she really wants to. At one point, she says "If you have a better plan for me, tell me." Early on in the movie, someone assumes she's angling for a job and she quickly assures them that she's a stay-at-home mom -- it becomes a bit of a loaded statement as the film proceeds.
The question of identity is one that the whole family struggles with to some degree. For Joe, he's still maturing and his questions at first angle around the image of being a good son and football player. He later takes a job where he is taking snapshots of perfect ideals, or perfect moments in time. For Jerry, there's obvious hurt pride after losing his job, but he doesn't even seem to know what his pride is in. His worry consistently is that Jeanette won't be mad at him, and he seems surprised when she doesn't fulfill that cliche. Jeanette of course struggles to fit warring identities throughout the story.
Dano's assurance in composing the film is lovely -- there are some truly wonderful framing shots and for the most part, he avoids the pitfall of trying too hard. There are a couple parts where the technicality of a shot gets in the way of the storytelling, but really only a few. Dano's use of light and landscape is reminiscent of Kelly Reichardt, just one beautiful shot of a face angled in morning light after another. His greatest strength is in the space he allows his actors -- Mulligan of course, but Oxenbould is really fantastic as a precocious adolescent whose love for his parents gives us a more forgiving lens to view the movie in. Gyllenhaal is looser here than usual -- his film roles are often too controlled, too thought through before the film starts shooting. Jerry is so uncertain and Gyllenhaal's portrayal of him is similarly ambiguous, making those moments where he crystallizes into hard focus that much more effective.
There are few times that Jerry and Jeanette come together in physical space, and they provide a poignant counterpoint throughout the film. You can probably sketch the whole story from the weight of the glances Mulligan and Gyllenhaal share (or avoid) with each other. Wildlife is seen through Joe's eyes, but everyone comes of age in this story, and the last scene is a truly heartbreaking portrayal of that.