by Charles Nash

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday October 22, 2018


In one scene of Paul Dano's handsomely crafted directorial debut, "Wildlife," the film's 14-year-old protagonist, Joe (Ed Oxenboult) approaches his mother, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) as she applies makeup for a job interview in her bathroom. "Mom, is Dad okay?" he asks. A beat passes before she replies, "Of course he is," with a hint of agitation. As the scene continues, the film cuts to a medium shot of Joe juxtaposed with Jeanette's reflection from the bathroom mirror, completely out of focus. He sees, as we see, that everything he knows about his parents, and everything they know about themselves, is little more than a blur.

It's a simple composition that's emblematic of what the film's communicating as a whole. Feelings of confusion are inevitable during one's coming of age, but how can you form an identity when even your own parents are internally wrestling with their own place in the world, or lack thereof? What if the American ideals we were raised upon were slowly suffocating us; stirring a cauldron of repression within our minds until it inevitably boils over.

Adapted from a novel of the same name by Richard Ford (Dano and his partner, Zoe Kazan, wrote the screenplay), Wildlife is set in Montana during the year 1960. The opening scenes depicting Joe's warm, suburban tranquility slowly begins to shift upon the reveal that his father, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) has lost his job at a local golf course. Once a former golf pro himself, and infected with far too much pride to work at a local grocery store, Jerry decides to take up work as a firefighter, extinguishing the state's raging wildfires for the measly sum of $1 an hour. This leaves his wife, Jeannette, a former substitute teacher turned homemaker, to raise Joe on her own for an indeterminable amount of time, in addition to having to work as a swimming instructor for supplemental income.

As for Joe himself, he's a quiet observer; a cypher for the viewer who bears witness to the disintegration of his parents' marriage as a culminating result of societal norms, gender roles and class. Uninterested in football, despite Jerry's insistence on how it shows his worth as a man, Joe takes up a part-time job as a photographer's assistant, composing family portraits that capture the happiness, and contentment, he longs for within his own home.

Dano's direction is both confident and precise. He and his cinematographer, Diego Garcia (Cemetery of Splendor) frame the characters through a delicate lens, relying heavily on reaction shots that simultaneously feel carefully composed and strikingly intimate in their formalism. The film's mise-en-scène also manages to capture the essence of the '60s without a shred of grandiose, "look-at-me" bravura; every meticulous detail comes across naturally in its recreation of post-WWII America.

The performances are (mostly) stellar across the board, but Mulligan, in particular, is a revelation. Molded by patriarchal norms, we watch as Jeanette transitions from a loving housewife into someone who can no longer suppress the seething resentment for the crummy hand she's been dealt. Through mere glances, Mulligan is able to convey all of Jeanette's conflating feelings of bitterness and self-loathing as they wrestle inside of her, personifying the allegorical flames her absent husband set off to put out.

If there's one weak link in the film, it's Jerry's arc, which ultimately feels as clunky as Jeanette's is nuanced. Gyllenhaal delivers some heartrending moments during the first half of the film, particularly in one instance when, upon his departure, he gives Joe a kiss on the cheek before stating, "Grown men love each other too. You know that, don't you?" However, Jerry's masculinity is eventually channeled in a way that's purely externalized, with Gyllenhaal relying too heavily on histrionics to blend in with the film's more refined aesthetic. (The moment when Gyllenhaal drops the film's title, in particular, feels like a bit of bad improv that should have been scrubbed.)

When it comes down to it, though, this is Joe's story, and newcomer Oxenboult's subtle turn as a passive, angst-ridden teen grappling with his parents' domestic meltdown anchors the film beautifully. Through his mournful blue eyes, "Wildlife" captures the messiness of growing up in a broken household with a melancholic honesty that's rare for such a polished production, let alone a first feature. It's a quietly devastating work from Dano, leaving behind scar tissue you may not even notice until the credits have rolled.