The quiet desperation of post-war suburbia has been an often-visited theme for film and literature, particularly in relation to the United States. It’s a dense psychological landscape in which to explore ordinary human beings grappling with problems that seem both familiar and insurmountable, with the distance of history to provide both safety and contemporary resonance. For his directorial debut, actor Paul Dano (‘Love & Mercy’, ‘Ruby Sparks’, 'There Will Be Blood', 'Little Miss Sunshine') steps into this world with ‘Wildlife’, but while this might seem like well-tallowed ground, he’s able to find a voice for the film and himself that is distinct and worth listening to.
Teenager Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould, ‘The Butterfly Tree’) and his parents Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal, ‘Nightcrawler’) and Jeanette (Carey Mulligan, ‘An Education’) move to a small town in Montana, not long after which Jerry loses his job. As Joe watches helpless, his parents’ marriage begins to fall apart, Jerry leaving spontaneously to fight dangerous wildfires, and Jeanette, furious at their abandonment, begins testing the boundaries of her marriage.
Adapted from the 1990 novel by Robert Ford, ‘Wildlife’ isn’t unique in content, but there's something quite special in its execution. Dano, along with co-writer and partner Zoe Kazan, circumnavigate many of the usual tropes, finding a new language and tone with which to examine this period and the people trapped in it. The screenplay is sparse and poetic in all the right ways, never overplaying emotion or exposition but not being afraid of it either. Kazan proved herself a formidable voice with her debut screenplay for ‘Ruby Sparks’, and that same uncompromising integrity is evident in her work here with Dano. Told predominantly from Joe’s perspective, ‘Wildlife’ is a delicate portrait of a child discovering his parents’ inadequacies, that his father isn’t an unbeatable hero and his mother a creature of unshakable virtue. He is forced to see them as human beings, and the film captures the conflict of this beautifully, the conflict of having to readjust your perspective, of deciding where you now fit within the family unit, of trying to work out who your parents really are and what this means about who you are.
In the context of post-war middle America, it also inevitably becomes a portrait of the falsity of the American Dream, less about how the suburban structures prevent its reality but how our own human flaws and desires do. Both Jerry and Jeanette collapse in the face of their challenges - albeit significant ones - realising that the concept of the nuclear family in early 60’s America is to suppress the individual, and the failure to achieve that ideal and the loss of their identities is a statement on their own inadequacies. Each member of the Brinson family feels unique and flawed, and it’s much to the benefit of the film that there is neither a hero nor a villain in this story. The film is careful to ask for empathy for these characters, but with Jerry and Jean, isn’t afraid to show their flaws, and in many ways, this is what sets ‘Wildfire’ apart. Your perspective is Joe’s perspective, and as such, you’re never told how you should feel about them. We see the complexity of this family unit as Joe does, and given as few answers as he is on how to deal with it.
It also helps that Dano has a surprisingly assured hand as a director. It would have been easy for him to simply riff or copy from the great directors he’s worked with such as Paul Thomas Anderson, Steve McQueen or Denis Villeneuve, but rather than just being a derivative of them or others who have explored the desperation of American suburbia, Dano is able to find a rhythm and a style all of his own, a pastoral quality that belies a quiet, unstable chaos underneath. Cinematographer Diego García, who shot last year’s glorious ‘Neon Bull’, strikes a visual language somewhere between classic landscape photography and Terrence Malick-like serenity and the slightly heightened quality of a painting, as we are watching Joe begin to construct memories he will return to again and again. Capturing and retaining something lost is another theme throughout the film, and this is palpably present in the way García and Dano construct the image, and how Louise Ford and Matthew Hannam construct meaning from those images with their careful, astute editing. What is most striking about ‘Wildlife’ from a technical perspective is how carefully considered every decision is, and an awareness from Dano as to how everything works in relation to everything else. It’s not a self-conscious debut but a generous one, belying a keen understanding of how cinema can explore deep human psychology without sacrificing its cinematic craft.
‘Wildlife’ is a delicate portrait of a child discovering his parents’ inadequacies, that his father isn’t an unbeatable hero and his mother a creature of unshakable virtue.
It also helps that he has a dream cast. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jerry is an infantile man, loving and caring but incredibly defensive when challenged, and Gyllenhaal finds a way to approach this personification of American male hubris with great sympathy without excusing his behaviour. Carey Mulligan is a powerhouse as Jean, again unafraid of committing to her questionable behaviour but approaching it with a real sense of dignity. Mulligan’s performance pushes against the parameters of the film in the best possible way, and as a consequence, the film shimmers under the force of her desperation. The real star of the film though is Ed Oxenbold, delivering yet another extraordinary and intelligent performance that breaks your heart again and again. He fills Joe with so much love and longing, to be the best he can and see the best in people, and he keeps that longing hidden behind his eyes. By reducing the character with such specificity, he’s able to speak volumes with a single look and create beautiful collaborations with Mulligan and Gyllenhaal, who both clearly adore working with him. I’m certain that we will talk about Ed Oxenbold one day in the same manner that we do Timothée Chalamet and Lucas Hedges, and if he continues with such great work (and clever choices) as he does here in ‘Wildlife’, I don’t think that moment is that far away.
There’s so much that feels familiar about ‘Wildlife’, but this is almost to its advantage, allowing us to see the freshness, generosity and uncompromising nature of Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan’s approach. It feels like a tone poem on disappointment and longing, very much in line with the quality one feels when reading a Robert Ford work, and sits with you long after you leave the cinema. Dano is certainly a director to watch, and the performances are all excellent, especially Ed Oxenbould. ‘Wildlife’ isn’t a film that tries to make much noise, but it beats with a heart that is clear and strong, and leaves you deeply moved.