Movie review: Paul Dano’s directing debut is an engrossing study of troubled relationships in ‘Wildlife’
Paul Dano is an actor who has regularly shifted between sweetly kooky and downright frightening characters. Look at the differences between his mostly silent Dwayne in “Little Miss Sunshine” and his brutal Tibeats in “12 Years a Slave.”
But Dano has been wanting to write and direct for a long time, and has done so, smoothly and inventively, in “Wildlife,” the film version of the 1990 Richard Ford novel, which Dano adapted over the past few years with his partner Zoe Kazan. It’s a grim, moody, and insightful story, set in 1960 Montana, of the Brinson family quietly coming apart at the seams, as seen through the eyes of the 14-year-old son Joe.
The opening scenes show what appears to be a happy household, where Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a golf pro at the local course, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) keeps their home in order, and Joe (Ed Oxenbould, most recently seen in “The Visit”) is playing football at high school. But that façade doesn’t remain very long. Jerry is actually a groundskeeper at the course, who gives lessons in his spare time. There are money troubles at home because Jeanette has given up teaching. Joe really doesn’t like football.
It gets worse. The Brinsons are new in town. They’re here because Jerry lost his job, again, and they had to move, again. No details are given, but there’s some tension around the dinner table, though Joe seems to be in the dark about much of their situation.
It gets even worse. Jerry loses his job at the golf course. He becomes depressed, Jeanette tries to stay chipper, Joe is confused by it all. “Are we going to have to move again?” he asks mom. But there are bigger worries. A radio voice in the background (the TV’s broken and they can’t afford to fix it) is constantly jabbering about the approaching range fires. People are needed to fight them, and since Jeanette’s new job as a swim instructor at the YMCA isn’t going to bring in much money, nor will Joe’s new part-time gig as a photography assistant, Jerry is thoughtlessly thinking of signing up and heading out to battle the extremely dangerous raging flames.
Which all leads to the film’s first screaming bout, with Jeanette directing her pent-up fury at Jerry: “You can’t keep running every time something goes wrong!” But he leaves.
More things go wrong. Due to the combination of his afterschool job, worries about his parents, and new responsibilities of running the household because mom is “preoccupied,” Joe’s grades start slipping.
Jeanette’s face is filled with worry, but she manages to let some of it out, telling Joe, “I feel like I need to wake up, but I don’t know what from or to.” Joe keeps it all inside, and plaudits go to Oxenbould, an Australian actor, who conveys his feelings to viewers through his expressive eyes and his body language.
Jeanette starts a new job at a car dealership, working closely with the owner, a divorced, seemingly nice guy, Warren Miller (Bill Camp). But, wonders Joe, IS he a nice guy? Why is mom starting to behave erratically? Is there something going on between mom and Miller in dad’s absence? He’s not the only one wondering; viewers will be, too, as nothing is made very clear until things start to become clear, then take shifts into unexpected directions.
Dano has gotten terrific performances out of everyone in his small main cast and, with the help of cinematographer Diego Garcia, has captured moments of beauty and terror in the vast physical landscapes and the frightening fires.
Gyllenhaal is absent from the goings-on for a long stretch, but when he returns, it’s the heat at home he has to deal with, and again, it’s seen through Joe’s eyes, and now heard in his imploring question to both parents: “What’s going to happen to us?” It’s fitting that Dano’s portrait of a family in turmoil ends with a photographic portrait, and the film is a promising beginning for his desire to put on a director’s hat.
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan; directed by Paul Dano
With Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould, Bill Camp