Made in Montana: Wildlife and the Beautiful Frustration of Great Falls
The overwhelming greenery of Great Falls, Montana, sets the scene for Paul Dano’s tender debut Wildlife, in which a family breaks apart with suburban disquiet. Jennifer Verzuh reflects on the unravelling of mother and wife Jeanette Brinson while reckoning with her own parallel memories of her hometown.
Montana is a beautiful place. It’s full of gushing rivers, sparkling lakes, and breathtaking mountains. Buffalos, elk, moose, and bald eagles can all be found in the foliage here. Despite being the fourth largest state in the country, the population only reaches a little over one million, leaving space for residents and tourists alike to hike, fish, ski, and go rafting. Unfortunately, the state also has the highest suicide rate in the US, and is in the midst of a substance abuse crisis. Despite the grand views, there is an acute loneliness and despair to living here that is difficult to ignore.
Located near the center of the state, Great Falls is a small city of 59,000 that the Missouri River cuts through, and where you can see the snow-capped Rocky Mountains not too far off in the distance. It takes its name from the series of waterfalls turned dams along the river, though the place is a far cry from a popular tourist destination. Besides spending time at bars and casinos, there’s little to do there. The charming local stores and restaurants one would expect from a small town are largely absent, replaced by huge national chains. When a second Wal-Mart opened a few years ago, it was big news. There’s an Air Force Base in town, which keeps the economy afloat and acts as the primary employer. And as soon as you exit the town limits you’re met with massive fields of grain, farms, and endless cattle grazing. The place still isn’t immune to the problems facing the state though. I recall a meth house being busted down the street from us as a child, and a boy around my brother’s age shooting himself in high school.
While attending the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, I was unexpectedly confronted with the area again. I was shocked to find that one of dramas premiering there, Paul Dano’s Wildlife, was set not only in Montana, but in Great Falls. I never expected to see the city depicted on screen, and I’m not sure I ever really wanted to. I’d always felt a certain degree of resentment for the place and saw it as the root of my lifelong struggle with depression. As a teenager it felt as if I didn’t get out I would die, emotionally and physically, and Wildlife placed me right back there again.
I moved to Great Falls with my family in preschool, and as far back as I can remember I was desperate to leave it behind, convinced I was destined for something more. In my young mind I was too talented, intelligent, and artful to live in this stifling, small-minded, and conservative town. I also, however unfairly, blamed my poor mental health on Montana. I was diagnosed with severe depression at 13 years old, something I always suspected was due to the fact that I was stuck in the middle of nowhere. As a result, at 18 years old I packed my bags and headed to New York City. When that didn’t work out, I tried moving to Ohio, Florida, Colorado, Utah, and California instead, all to varying levels of success. I’ve largely tried to push Montana from my mind since leaving, though have never been entirely successful in doing so.
Wildlife follows the Brinson family: mother Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), and their teenage son Joe (Ed Oxenbould), after they relocate to Montana in the 1960s. Shortly after the move, Jerry loses his job and, in an attempt to find work and prove himself, he takes to the forest to fight raging wildfires. He leaves Jeanette and Joe to fend for themselves, and causes a splinter in the family. The movie is primarily about Joe and his disillusionment regarding his parents and their relationship. But it’s Jeanette’s character that I felt the strongest connection to.
“What kind of man leaves his wife and child in such a lonely place?” she asks Joe early on, in a state of anguish. Here was a woman who, like me, felt trapped within this insignificant little city, and her own life. Deserted in an unknown place, with no friends, family, and for the first time in her life, no male figure (be it husband or father) to take care of her, Jeanette is lost, and her hatred of the place seeps out. She wants desperately to go, but still feels bound here by her role within the family. This causes her depression to worsen, and she spirals out.
Mulligan gives such fragility and empathy to her character with a remarkably delicate, yet somehow fierce performance. We’re not so used to having to watch a wife and mother make disastrous choices that hurt her family, and ultimately, herself, but that’s what makes Jeanette such a frightfully believable character. Her heartbreak is tangible, as is the eagerness to rid herself of it by any means needs necessary. She’s desperately trying to figure out who is she and what her future should look like.
It would be easy for Jeanette and I to blame all of our problems on Great Falls. I know I have on more than one occasion. It can be a dreary, sad and frigidly cold place with long, depressing winters. Even as a young girl, I felt angry my father had moved us there. Even as I grew older, I became increasingly aware of just how isolated we were. I was frustrated with the limited job opportunities available outside the military. It seemed like the primary option for young women was to marry a serviceman and start a family – something I dreaded. Unable to find solid, full-time employment, Jeanette clearly feels this too, as she cannot foresee a way to take care of herself and her son here without leaning on a man for financial support.
The truth is that Jeanette’s issues, and my own, aren’t really with the town. Jeanette’s crisis lies within herself. Her depression, loneliness, and desire for a more independent life are causing her pain and confusion. She was hurting long before her family came here and Jerry took off. Jeannette never had an opportunity to discover what she wants. Jerry leaving gives her one. My frustrations were also internal. I was painfully sad, had trouble making friends, and I was desperate to become something better, which seemed impossible in Montana. I had expected that those struggles would simply disappear once I crossed the state line, but they didn’t. I now realize it would have been the same for me growing up anywhere, just as Jeanette would have still been trapped in a stifling marriage and life no matter where she was.
Whether we choose to accept it or not, there is a real wildness and beauty to Great Falls. Everywhere is green, the wide river reflects the lights of the city and bridge at night, deers stalk the streets, and the mountain ranges, glowing bright shades of blue in the distance, beckon. We see glimpses of this in Dano’s film, most notably when Jeanette drives her son to see the wildfires Jerry is fighting. As they head up the winding highway, Joe takes in the hills, lush trees, and mountains in the distance. Jeanette doesn’t give them a second look. When they get out the car to witness the foreboding fire ravaging the forest, its power leaves her unaffected. She only sees it, and this state as a whole, as the root of her abandonment.
Jeanette is too concerned with what’s wrong here to engage with what Montana has to offer. I largely kept people at a distance during my childhood, I didn’t bother going outdoors more than necessary. I consistently turned down my father when he invited me on trips to go camping, fishing, hunting, or skiing. I was too busy planning an escape to actually entertain the possibility that I could be happy here. Like Jeanette, I made sure to let people know I wasn’t born in Great Falls. To my classmates, I eagerly volunteered that I was really from New York, even though I moved away as a baby and couldn’t remember anything about the place. The idea of staying within state limits didn’t even cross my mind, and I only applied to colleges that were far away. Even now when people ask me where I’m from, I hesitate to answer. I’m somehow embarrassed.
Even after leaving Great Falls, Jeannette still doesn’t have the life she wants. But, she no longer appears as conflicted or confused. She has a teaching job, friends, her independence, and is “getting along.” She’s finally in control of her own life, and that’s good enough for now.
We both needed a change and perhaps Jeannette did run away in some respects, but she was also running towards something, even if she didn’t quite know what that could look like. I know I didn’t, really. In abandoning Montana for far off bigger cities, I still haven’t entirely discovered who I am, landed the jobs I wanted, found a solid relationship, or successfully quieted my lingering sadness, as I’d hoped I would. I’ve learned that leaving doesn’t solve all of your problems or necessarily fix you. I needed to go and see what else there was, but at the same time I can’t deny any longer that this place made me who I am, in bad ways, yes, but also in really lovely ones too.
I’ll never forget kayaking with my father at Glacier National Park and realizing it was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen, my friends and I playing with our flashlights while staring at the stars in an empty field, riding my bike down to the local video store to pore over their selection for hours on end, having snowball and water gun fights with my brothers, or getting my first job in media as a camera operator at the local news station. As much resentment as I hold for Great Falls, there’s mountains of affection and love too.
Jennifer Verzuh (@MstressAmerica) is a Los Angeles based film critic. She’s had her work published at Little White Lies, Screen Queens, and Reel Honey Magazine. In addition to her writing, her love of indie cinema has also led to her working at film festivals throughout the US.