Female Freedom as Hysteria in Wildlife

By Claire Jungmann

Image via IMDB

Image via IMDB

Paul Dano’s Wildlife thrives on silence and a sense of austerity. The film always is centered around lack: of order, of money, of love, of snow. The overall mood is cold, yet Carey Mulligan’s performance as main character Jeanette is scalding.

Following a small family’s move to Montana in the early 1960s, patriarch Jerry Brison (Jake Gyllenhaal) loses his job and decides to find work putting out forest fires. His son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) watches his mother Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) unravel from her fabricated housewife persona. The movie focuses on destruction, on disintegration — the disintegration of traditional family life, of a housewife’s sanity, of the post-war American family unit. Mulligan’s performance transitions her character from a contained and responsible mother to a lost young woman desperately trying to create herself. Her hysteria begins as a fire does, lit by the spark of her husband leaving, slowing then furiously burning up all semblance of certainty. Wildlife is burdened with uncomfortable subversion that demands the audience to rethink their expectations of female characters.

The film opens in their modest rental home: a lonely, boxy brick house with no leaves on the trees outside. Joe plays football with his father while his mother cooks dinner inside. They all come together and share a home-cooked meal and congenial conversation. Though Dano’s Midwest is cold and bleak and empty, this little family is holding themselves together.

As viewers, the unity of the nuclear family is still a comfort to us. The return to gender roles creates a sense of easy harmony and identity for the characters. The father talks about football, the mother serves them dinner, and their son looks up to his parents. It is simple, easy to understand. The viewer knows these character archetypes and how they are supposed to act — what is and isn’t appropriate for them to do. But as her husband abandons his role as provider, shifting the family dynamic, Jeanette begins to unravel. His absence dislodges the strict roles that the family members play, both causing and allowing Jeanette’s downward spiral into what could be called hysteria.

Jeanette’s solidly cheerful exterior breaks down slowly, then all at once — as if a flood of her repression has breached some internal dam of traditional wifely performance. She does not know what to do with her newfound freedom, and it consumes her. The audience views this spiral through her unassuming teenage son, Joe, who neither knows what to do or think. It is terrifying to find out that the absolute confidence Jeanette has in her husband is feigned. Viewers start to shift in their seat as their perception of Jeanette changes from a caregiving mother to a complicated and confused woman. Jeanette is not the straightforward character that we were content with, and that makes us anxious. She doesn’t know what to do with herself. The audience is just as confused as Mulligan’s character, losing all sense of security in her character.

Mulligan’s performance transitions her character from a contained and responsible mother to a lost young woman desperately trying to create herself. Her hysteria begins like a fire does, lit by the spark of her husband leaving, slowly then furiously burning up all semblance of certainty.  

The film inches along, painfully slowly, then races through treacherous territories. Audiences find themselves forgetting to breathe in the quiet and endless moments of tension. The most terrifying scene takes place at the home of the town’s auto shop manager Mr. Miller (Bill Camp). Jeanette is drunk, wearing a revealing green dress and overly made up. We can see the desperation and insanity begin to set in, as Joe quietly watches his mother. The normal silence is cut with a jaunty record playing in the background. There is suddenly too much going on: his mother is dancing, insisting that he join while Miller, an interloper in their lives, observes. Chaos takes form in the distant and uncontrollable fires and in Jeanette’s internal disintegration.

Image via Variety

Image via Variety

At first, Jeanette seems to relish her newfound freedom, but we discover that hysterical happiness is also a façade. She turns to her fourteen-year-old son, asking him, “Do you have a better plan for me?” as if pleading for him to take care of her. He has to raise himself and take care of his mother, which is inherently uncomfortable for the audience. “Take care of your son!” we want to scream, as Mulligan portrays her character as a broken and confused woman instead of the competent mother we want her to be.

The audience craves normalcy in the family dynamic, feeling for young Joe as he cooks his own dinner and waits for his father to come home. There is a sense of “It shouldn’t be like this,” but was the nucleic family we saw in the beginning of the film what we really wanted to see?

When Janette’s untempered personality is released, years of suppression and regret come tumbling out. She breaks free from the tightly wound female identity that she has subscribed to for so long and is left with an empty shell. She doesn’t know what to do with it and neither does her son. She had been a cornerstone in his life and now that she is crumbling, he can do nothing but look silently on. Escaping from the rigid protocol of the traditional nuclear family that characterized American families in the 1950s, Jeanette finds herself in the murky situation of redefining who she is outside of these parameters.