***1/2 out of ****
(for thematic material including a sexual situation, brief strong language, and smoking)
Released: October 19, 2018 limited; November 9 expands
Runtime: 105 minutes
Directed by: Paul Dano
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould, Jake Gyllenhaal, Bill Camp
(Click here to read my interview with director Paul Dano)
Taking a slow burn approach to family dysfunction, with characters not easily labeled or put in a box, and choices more complex than armchair psychology can peg, Wildlife is a challenging film. Though accessible, it’s not one for sentiment.
And frankly, the two central parents — with their frustrating and selfish decisions at times — all-but dare you to like them. Yet humanity, even in tragic form, shines through.
Wildlife is the directorial debut of actor Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood, Swiss Army Man, Little Miss Sunshine). He stays strictly behind the camera here, giving showcases to Oscar nominees Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal in two of the meatier roles of their respective careers. If you don’t like their Jeanette and Jerry Brinson, I doubt Dano would object, but he does have empathy for them.
His movie, by extension, wants you to extend the same; to observe, be thoughtful, be patient, and reserve judgment. To lament without becoming cynical or bitter. If your temperament matches his (and his film’s), you will. Mine seems to, and I did.
Indeed, I found myself mesmerized by these people, this family, their story, and the artful precision with which Dano tells it.
Wildlife, based on the novel by Richard Ford and adapted by Dano and his life-partner actress/writer Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick), is about the deterioration of a mid-century American marriage. It’s viewed from the perspective of the 14-year-old son Joe (relative newcomer Ed Oxenbould).
“Viewed” is the proper term here, not “told”, as Dano uses shot selections and edit choices — not narration — to see this unfold from Joe’s increasingly bewildered, wrecked gaze. Important exchanges often occur just outside the frame that Joe remains in, moments heard but not seen (or seen from a distance in a POV), as Joe bares witness to what we’re hearing, ill-equipped to process the changes happening before him.
Jerry is a drinker and two-bit gambler but good at hiding it. Jeanette is frustrated, and hides that just as well. But in 1960, in a small Montana town, as Jerry’s vices once again threaten his employment, those conflicts finally come to a head. The veneer of the Brinson’s American Dream quickly begins to crack.
Joe is blindsided as it does, which speaks to how good Jerry and Jeanette have been to him as parents. He’s not rolling his eyes thinking, “Here we go again.” Joe legitimately never saw this coming, especially the person his mother becomes as a result. He’s never seen thiswoman before.
Herein lies a key foundation for how Dano establishes an empathetic baseline. Jerry and Jeanette are flawed people who’ve sincerely been trying to raise their son well, to honor their responsibilities over their impulses. But stoic, stern propriety can only take you so far. And for a wife, a lack of love and support has an inevitable cumulative effect. When your husband offers neither stability nor appreciation, eventually you look elsewhere.
As Jeanette begins to defy conventional norms, going to erratic and destructive extremes (and making some wildly irresponsible decisions as a parent, especially during one of the film’s key centerpieces), it’s easy to see why Joe has more sympathy for his dad, a man who’s more genuinely warm and gregarious. Jeanette doesn’t possess those strengths; hers are different, less obvious, and that keeps Joe from being able to fully see his dad’s weaknesses or how they’re the root of what his family and mother have come to.
Jeanette is a bit of a Blanche DuBois (a fascinating coincidence, perhaps Freudian, given that co-writer Zoe Kazan’s grandfather is Eliza Kazan, the director of A Streetcar Named Desire). She wants love and security, falling back on her beauty and wiles as the means to acquire them.
But Jeanette is more of a puzzle than Blanche. There’s no bipolar volatility at play, although she can be unpredictable and erratic. Jeanette is calculated, deliberate and intentional, but also desperate under the limits of a patriarchal culture and its inadequate options. Some of her choices may be reckless, especially as she gives her son a front row seat to her midlife crisis. But, given the constraints of her time and place, her indefensible actions become understandable. The choices she makes are the only ones she feels she’s got.
Mulligan, to her credit, never softens Jeanette’s selfish spiral, but she does humanize it. We may be infuriated by some of her actions, but Mulligan’s performance and Dano’s gracious eye help us to understand her, even grieve for her. When Jeanette says of her husband with defeated contempt, “He has very beautiful intentions,” we know she’s come to her breaking point; we know why and how.
Gyllenhaal matches with equally compelling layers. Jerry’s selfishness is more quickly apparent, but Gyllenhaal helps us to see that it’s rooted in an existential state of feeling lost and adrift, without purpose; it’s not callous disregard. As Joe, Ed Oxenbould is devastated and confused. He endures, in a sense, the hardest, most unfair sort of coming of age, but with awkward baby steps he walks into his own agency, which makes the final moment all the more powerful.
As a filmmaker, Dano shoots this family portrait in portraiture. It’s a controlled, meticulous vision, but not cold or distant. Images are often static, in close-up, or ironically evoking a Norman Rockwell scene. Visually lush and painterly, while capturing lives of quiet desperation. This is a humble debut for Dano as a filmmaker, but not a modest one. Wildlifeis the work of a confident filmmaker.
Despite provoking strong emotions, I don’t know if I was ever fully moved by anything here, at least not in a satisfying sense. But then that’s the rare beauty of Wildlife; its melancholy is honest, keen to the truth that things don’t need to resolve as we would have liked or hoped for (or even fully resolve at all) in order to heal, reconcile, and begin anew.