by Ryan Simpkins
I have such a crush on Carey Mulligan. She’s perfected the role of the difficult woman, finding understanding in characters like hateable Daisy Buchanan or obnoxious Kitty Bennet. She cheats on Justin Timberlake in Inside Llewyn Davis, getting pregnant with broke-as-shit Oscar Isaac’s unwanted kid. Before that she cheated on Oscar Isaac with Ryan Gosling in Drive, playing a love interest with thought and agency amidst a gang war (while those characters are often left unexplored). She is always, always so thoughtful, and likable in a way despite the shit her characters pull. Or maybe I’m just biased. (I cut my waist length hair to a bob because of her when I was 16. Sometimes people say I almost look like her and I die.) But in all of these roles she is second to a man, her insanity reflected against their stoic performances. She’s been wife to several Hollywood hotties (I just named four counting DiCaprio as Gatsby), but so rarely is she able to claim these characters in their own light. Finally, she has been given the chance.
Any critic will tell you, Wildlife is Mulligan’s movie. Penned by indie film power couple Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano, and the directorial debut of the latter, Wildlife explores the implosion of a nuclear family in 1960s small town Montana against the backdrop of a roaring wildfire. Mulligan’s Jeanette is wife to Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal, also killer) and mother to Joe (Ed Oxenbould, pretty much Paul Dano age 14), picture perfect for the first ten minutes. Joe plays football, Jerry works, and Jeanette makes the meals, all three coming together to listen to the game on the radio at the end of the day. Jerry has moved his family from town to town amidst a cycle of being hired and let go from seemingly every job. Jeanette has supported her husband through this, used to meal prep and job loss, but is now tired of the constant moving. Upon his most recent lost job fresh from the move to Montana, Jeanette and Joe are resistant to another move and willing to make things here work. The two get jobs as the patriarch drinks late into the night and sleeps in his car, desperate for a change of pace but unwilling to set the wheels in motion. Finally, he finds work fighting the forest fire that threatens the town, a job recognized as impossible as they only dig trenches to keep it from spreading and wait for the snow to fall, for nature to control itself. Jeanette loses it. She fights him, guilts him, tells him he’s only running away again, this time leaving his family behind. Joe watches his parents yell at each other for maybe the first time. And still, Jerry leaves. Jeanette is left to fall to her own devices, thrashing against social norms as the family life she worked towards falls to ashes around her. Yet Gyllenhaal is not the villain of this story. He too is just a player in what the 1950’s asked of its young men. The family has simply fallen victim to itself: pressures of performity and social construction building people into a dollhouse of patriarchal roles and female submission. What is so brilliant about Kazan and Dano’s script paired with the talents of Mulligan is its recognition of Friedanian stresses on nuclear housewives as the mental illness that it is, the pressure of forced motherhood turning women sick. A family that never wanted to be a family can’t do anything but burn.
The film is set just a few years before second wave feminism was really set into motion. In 1963, Betty Friedan published her Feminine Mystique. The book explores a “problem with no name” living within American housewives. Young women with husband and children felt trapped within the walls of their homes, submitting themselves to housework and chores, serving their family as if that was enough to serve themselves. These women felt guilty hoarding these feelings, resenting their loved ones as they were confined to a feminity of submission. Friedan defines this problem, letting these young (mostly white, middle class, all American) women know that they were not alone, that they were not crazy, that their feelings of entrapment were valid and the system ushering them into these roles was unjust. A bit of Friedan’s theory can be credited to Simone de Beauvoir’s exploration of what she calls The Second Sex (aka the construction of femininity as a gender made submissive), a major bit of foundation for feminist theory. De Beauvoir credits the societal pressures on women to reproduce and raise a family as a means of society’s domination and use of women. Famed Judith Butler based her own feminist theory on both these writers. If you’ve taken any sociology class I’m sure you’re familiar with her idea that gender is performative. We are simply policing ourselves to act out prescribed notions of gender archetypes, subconsciously acting the way we believe a society would want us to. We see all of these theories exhibited in Wildlife. Mulligan’s Jeanette acts as a model example of a woman hindered by what these theories define. She works to act like the perfect housewife, submitting to the controls of a patriarchal family, all the while an unnamed problem boiling beneath her skin.
Jeanette was a young mother, as so many women in the period were. She’s only 34 raising her 14-year-old son, making her 20 when she had Jerry’s baby. She dropped out of college, telling her son she practically left the school before her time there began, doing so presumably to raise this family. Jeanette is nostalgic for her youth before motherhood, telling Joe stories of the cowboy bars she used to linger in, wearing outfits from her “pageant queen” days. “It’s probably nice to know your parents were once not your parents,” she says, swaying her hips to music like she used to. Jeanette was pushed into motherhood before her time, before her chance to explore her potential granted with a college education and degree. She fell into this role amidst exciting young adulthood, opportunities endless with the whole world ahead of her. All of that stopped short by a pregnancy that may have easily been accidental. But Jeanette seemed to have taken this in stride, rolling with the punches and claiming this role as her official title, working to look like a woman in a ‘50s Jell-O advertisement.
Jeanette puts work into her image, Mulligan playing the roll of pin up housewife perfectly for the film’s first 15 minutes. Her hair is huge and overdone, makeup spotless, dresses for cookbook family dinner like it’s a ball, in an appearance that would have taken hours to complete. While Jerry is putting hours in at work, jobless Jeanette is working hard for this image. She masks money trouble, excusing a check bouncing at her son’s school by explaining a bank switch that came with the move (sounds fake but ok, Carey). She understands the importance of upholding the household, helping her son with homework and encouraging her husband despite his job loss, playing her part in the picture perfect family. But this gets tiresome, and it’s clear Jeanette wants more.
As soon as the opportunity arises, Jeanette offers to go back to work. She mentions her old job as a substitute early in the film, a hint of longing in her voice as she offers to the high school secretary how nice it must be to be surrounded by young people, “all that spirit”. As soon as Jerry loses his job, she mentions the possibility of her getting her own, a proposal framed as an offer that’s really a statement to Mulligan. She mentions it at least three times in half a scene, remaining her composure against her dejected, careless husband, housewife hair still perfect. She then sets out in a fancy fit to go push herself into the workforce, unrelenting in one office that gives her several “no”s until she finally gets a yes. Jeanette does find a sense of liberation in her work teaching swimming classes at the Y, discovering a social circle of young working women living independently at the “Helen apartments”, housing she speaks of with longing once her husband leaves. She finds a bit of room to breathe in working in the public sphere, but that begins to change when her husband up and leaves.
Her husband’s running off to the fires leaves Jeanette fuming. The day he’s gone there is a clear change: she is cold, curt, distant. Joe awakes late the morning after his father leaves, realizing he’s late for school. He moves to the living room where his mother stands in an evening gown, leaning into a mirror to apply her lipstick. She offers Joe no explanation, only telling him she needs to care for the two of them now that his father has “abandoned” them. He’s still in shock, as if it’s a dream he’s still trying to wake from. “You’re wasting your life standing there watching me, sweetheart,” she tells him. This is not the woman who kissed his head and helped him with his homework, this is a woman working to adapt like a confused animal caught in a fire. She continuously reminds Joe that she is the one who’s stayed with him while his father up and left, even taking Joe to the hills too close to the fire to see the destruction while not allowing him a chance to look for his father among the fighters. Jeanette is itching with a slight jealousy, telling Joe “I think your father has a woman out here”. But her jealousy is more than that.
Jerry had the freedom to up and leave, to explore his own path in the face of confusion without society judging him for it. Jerry, a man who got his college girlfriend pregnant and then corralled her into a family home, has now left his family to go live on the edge of life. And Jeanette cannot stand it, as she was forced to sacrifice her youth, her potential, to pull together the appearance of family that her husband is able to so carelessly leave behind. She is forced to stay, while there’s always been a longing for more behind her made up eyes. But in the same way a paranoid partner worries their lover is unfaithful because they have that tendencies within them, Jeanette projects the term “abandonment” onto Jerry’s actions countlessly, as if seeing her own insecurities and desires in what he’s doing. She lashes out in independence, shaking off her motherly responsibilities of making dinner for her son and waking him up for school to go live her own life amongst young working women and powerful men who want her. She’s unfaithful to her husband. Jeanette acts dangerously, something within her snapping that is more than jealousy and betrayal, but a mental illness that’s boiled over.
Behavior exhibited by Mulligan’s young housewife is crazed. Jeanette flies between massive mood swings, dancing and flirting in her pageantry gown one minute before becoming “irritable” the next, speeding to the door. She is aggressive and paranoid, turning the corner after showing her lover out to find Joe and slap him, hard, an energy found in a moment of shock. The audience moves slowly through the halls with Joe, finding his mother’s clothes strewn about a softly lit room, unsure when his father will return as we hear the front door shut. Is it his father come to find her betrayal? We quickly realize it’s only her with her slap, but it’s clear she had the same concern. Jeanette drinks excessively, putting herself in uncomfortable positions with men she doesn’t care for but sleeps with anyway (it’s implied the older man provides her with a financial support), drinking to ease herself into the situation. A strange scene all too long - to make sure we’re as upset as Joe, who was dragged along - plays out where Jeanette goes to dinner with the rich and wrinkled Warren Miller, a man very powerful in town. She wears a dress that’s too nice and drinks his expensive booze, flirting with him while her son sits across the table and watches. Earlier, Joe asked his mother if she liked the man, a man she gave praise to for being “powerful, with powerful friends”. Her look told us she knew Miller as a revolting man who holds that power above the heads of others. And yet she goes back on this judgement from moment to moment, between disgust and desperation. Perhaps she does this because she is used to surrendering herself to male dominance, Jerry having called the shots and moved the family around for so long. In his absence she is angry and confused and works to fill his role with a man she uses for his money and power. This behavior is erratic and unchartable, the audience and Joe never sure what will set her off when, whether or not she’ll be home in the morning or be back for dinner at night, unsure if she’ll greet us with a smile or just look past us to the wall behind our heads. After a drunken mistake she sits in the car and works to breathe through her tears, holding her hands to her head and choking out “I feel like I need to wake up”. Joe, sitting next to her, asks “Mom?”. And she turns, blankly, as if she forgot he was there, before furrowing her brow and putting on a slow smile, juxtaposing the empty look in her wet eyes.
Now, reviews love Carey, as do I, but some take issue with how quickly she turns. She wears a beehive and makes breakfast in one scene and then suddenly in the next it’s like she’s gone. But I think this is misunderstood as a “turn” at all. From the film’s beginning, Mulligan mastered a smile below sad eyes, masking an upset for a greater desire beneath curved lips painted red. Her eyes will tell us of her confusion, of her disappointment with her husband, of her want for work contrasting the way she asks if she should apply for jobs like a delicate question. But above all, the men will see her smile. Jeanette did not turn - for this illness has been within her all along, only now finding room to become unleashed.