Director: Paul Dano
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould, Jake Gyllenhaal
In the third act of Paul Dano’s exceptional directorial debut Wildlife, the headlights of the Brinson family car illuminate a worn down fascia of an old building. It looks as though it might’ve once said ‘Davidson’ on it. Perhaps Harley? Clarity is gone. Lost in the smudges. Dano lingers here, with that sign in the murk of the night, and we feel the overlapping ages of things. How there isn’t a series of generations running after one another consecutively, but rather what a jumble everything is. All ages happening at once.
Wildlife is the story of a family in 1960. The Brinsons have recently arrived in Helena, Montana, and with smart economy Dano and partner Zoe Kazan’s screenplay makes us aware that this threesome have had a somewhat transient existence. Patriarch Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a kind man, working on the grounds of a golf club when we join him; though that career is short-lived. After being fired, he languishes, much to the displeasure of his wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan). When he joins a down-and-out crew fighting dangerous forest fires – in a very real sense abandoning his family – Jeanette takes it even harder. She toughens, compartmentalises, and attracts the attention of an older local business owner, Warren Miller (Bill Camp).
All of this is witnessed through the eyes of 14-year-old Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould). Wide-eyed and wise beyond his years, he is the fulcrum of the story, and very few scenes take place without his presence. The lion’s share of Wildlife is from his perspective, making the piece feel like a memoir (it’s adapted from a novel by Richard Ford).
Dano was a noted actor in his youth, so it seems fitting that his first directorial effort should spotlight a similarly sensitive and gifted young star in the making. Oxenbould carries a great deal of water here, and Dano takes time to gauge the family crisis through his reactions. What he – and by extension we – are forced to witness is the demythologising of his parents.
In a very real sense Jerry and Jeanette are the children of the piece. After he is fired, Jerry regresses; shirking responsibility before running away from his problems. Jeanette, meanwhile, becomes evermore bratty, dresses as she did in her youth, and makes some decidedly circumspect parenting decisions. Her husband has acted out; why can’t she?
We’re perhaps more used to seeing husbands getting themselves entangled in affairs. Gyllenhaal’s look is even strongly reminiscent of Jon Hamm’s Don Draper on the weekends. Wildlife shows us a woman walking consciously into the same kind of trouble; reconnecting with a part of herself she had put in a drawer. As the structure requires for young Joe to be present for all meaningful encounters, this leads to a particularly uncomfortable and extended sequence in which the mother and son are invited to dinner with Mr. Miller. Joe is in effect forced to confront both his mother’s sexuality and her infidelity all at once. Innocence lost, indeed.
By the time the film builds to a dramatic climax, Joe’s role as parent to two grown children is complete. Even in the slightly awkward coda, it is up to him to herd his parents into place for a photograph. The child is father to the man. And woman.
Dano employs a deft, patient touch, locating a sensibility midway between Jeff Nichols and Todd Haynes, while the achingly giving landscapes throw in a dash of Kelly Reichardt. Reichardt is certainly felt in the leisurely pacing; though it is all in service of crafting rich and complex characters..
It helps that Mulligan and Gyllenhaal deliver career best performances. Given both of their catalogues, that’s quite a statement, but it’s warranted. Mulligan particularly grabs the role of Jeanette by the throat, and few who see Wildlife will be surprised when her name appears on many nomination lists in the coming awards season. Dano’s film will most keenly be remembered for Oxenbould, however. Remember, you saw him here first.
If, that is, you see Wildlife, which you must, if you can. Arriving here in the UK on the 9th November on a limited run in select cinemas, this is one to actively keep an eye out for, to work your schedule around.
It isn’t an easy watch. While Dano has a gift for a beautifully measured frame, he’s unafraid to fill it with utterly transfixing heartache. There’s very little score present in the film, giving it the same intimate, hushed awe as the very best moments of The Wire. Except here the war is at home, and its made up of many battles. Some are loud, but most are quiet as a whisper.