There are a hundred reasons to praise Wildlife, and about 90 of them involve an endlessly layered, always-stirring performance from Carey Mulligan. We're rapidly approaching award season, and it's impossible to fathom a list of Best Actress Oscar nominees that doesn't include her.
The role of Jeannette Brinson, as penned by Richard Ford in his 1990 novel, Wildlife, is complex, for sure. She flails through her days in 1960s-era Great Falls, Montana, as if she were treading water—gasping for breath while, at the same time, grasping for something (or someone) to hold on to. Not-so-coincidentally, Jeannette takes a job as a swimming instructor at a local YMCA when her husband Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) loses his job.
As Jeannette treads water, literally and figuratively, Jerry himself is drowning sorrow and too many beers. In full-tilt survival mode, Mulligan erupts off the screen as Jeanette: clear-eyed but unsettled, compassionate but selfish, sexy but lonely, and every combination thereof. Mulligan, who burst onto the scene in 2005's Price & Prejudice and nabbed an Oscar nomination four years later in An Education, is near perfection here. You'll likely not see a better screen performance this year.
Wildlife is the directorial debut of actor Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood, 12 Years a Slave). At his film's premiere at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, Dano told Boise Weekly that long before he was asked to adapt the book to the big screen, he had already read it multiple times, and he was "spooked and unsettled" by the novel.
"I spent a year daydreaming about it," Dano told BW. "One day, a final scene came to me—the final image of what would be my film. That image gave me the courage to go forward."
Indeed, Wildlife's final scene will undoubtedly burn an indelible image into your mind's eye. But what comes before that climax—the tumult of a couple's deteriorating marriage and how it takes their son as its prisoner—is achingly intimate. For instance, when Jerry leaves home to take a $1-per-hour job battling wildfires near the Montana/Canada border, Jeannette's moral compass goes askew.
"The part I love about Jeannette's story is this woman making pretty bad choices; and yet, you somehow root for her to be alright," Mulligan told BW following the film's Toronto premiere. "That's a rare thing to see on screen: a woman who can mess everything up, and you can still root for her to survive it all."
Mulligan, now a mother of two children, said she has become increasingly selective in choosing film roles that might take her away from her own family .
"So, when the opportunity came along to get a role like Jeannette—a role that is so rich, so detailed, so complex, so truthful—well, now this is the new barometer for everything that I want to do going forward," she said.
We can only be so lucky.