Paul Dano is not just a good actor. He is a great actor. So great that I will always watch anything he is a part of. So I was looking forward to Wildlife, even if it didn’t feature him in front of the camera. This is his directorial debut, from a script co-written with Zoe Kazan, adapted from the book by Richard Ford, and it is certainly a film in line with other choices he has made throughout his career.
Ed Oxenbould is Joe, the son of Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Jeanette (Carey Mulligan). The family live in Montana, it is the 1950s, and there is a big wildfire raging nearby that Jerry decides to head off and help tackle once he finds himself out of work. This leaves Jeanette alone, which leads to her looking for employment. And occasional company.
With each scene shot in a very controlled and precise, and fairly muted, manner, Wildlife is a film that feels almost as if it could have been made in the time it is set. Although not as polite and repressed as a Douglas Sirk movie, and certainly not as vibrant with the colours, this is a familiar portrait of people trying to keep up appearances with everyone around them while emotions beneath the surface start to bubble up and threaten to explode in a spectacularly messy display.
The three leads help, despite the fact that Gyllenhaal ends up offscreen for most of the runtime. Oxenbould is fantastic, perfectly portraying his character as a teenager being protected by his parents while he starts to become more aware of their problems. He is wide-eyes at times, strong and determined at other times, depending on how he is moved to react to events unfolding around him. Mulligan gives the kind of performance that she has given so effectively before, that of a young woman trying to do what is seen as right while also allowing herself some moments of happiness, and she's a delight in her role, whether strained by her interactions with Gyllenhaal or drinking her way into the mentality she needs for an extra-marital close encounter that will give her something she cannot find at home.
Dano directs everything with a very delicate touch, not feeling a need to punctuate the proceedings with any major cataclysms. That's probably in line with the book, I would assume (although I haven't read it), but it also allows Dano to focus on doing his best by a cast that will deliver exactly what he wants from them. The barbs in the script, the moments of awkwardness, the compartmentalisation of people according to classist labels, these elements add up to something surprisingly compelling. Oxenbould is the observer, the person that viewers are often placed alongside, but neither Mulligan nor Gyllenhaal are painted as angels or demons. They're just human. And that is nicely highlighted by the very final scene in the film, which feels both honest and melancholic.
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