Wildlife is Paul Dano’s directorial debut, and its an impressive opening gambit from the quirky young (ish) actor. He’s co-written the screenplay too (adapted from Richard Ford’s 1990 novel), his second collaboration with his real-life partner, Zoe Kazan. I like it. A lot. It’s a quiet, understated piece of work, and it gives the actors space to develop their roles.
It’s 1960-something. Joe (Ed Oxenbould) is fourteen, and he’s moved with his family to Great Falls, Montana. We soon learn that he is used to new beginnings, that his dad, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), is a dreamer; he finds it hard to hold down a job. Joe’s mom, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), indulges Jerry’s fecklessness: she loves him. So she and Joe follow him from town to town, never putting down roots.
But when Jerry is fired for being over-familiar with the members of the golf club where he works, he decides he wants to join the firefighters tackling the flames devouring the Montana forests. Jeanette begs him not to take the job: it means leaving his family, and they’ve never been apart before. She’ll deal with anything, it seems, as long as they’re together. If he goes, he risks the whole relationship, but he can’t seem to stop himself. Never mind that Jeanette can earn more than him, as a substitute teacher or a swimming coach; never mind that there are other jobs in town; he’s too proud to take them. He’s set on his course, determined to see it through.
Gyllenhaal is a gifted actor, no doubt about it, but it’s at this point – as he leaves – that the film begins to flower. Joe’s pained, inarticulate response to the disintegration of his parents’ marriage is excruciating; Oxenbould excels at conveying discomfort without saying anything.
And Mulligan is magnificent as the aggrieved Jeanette, bitter and resentful that her sacrifices haven’t been enough. She’s stuck with Jerry through thick and thin, but now he’s abandoned her. She reacts with self-destructive fury, seeking to recover the girl she used to be, dressing up and acting up, flirting with men she doesn’t even like. There’s a vulnerability at the heart of the performance that keeps us onside, even when she’s making Joe’s (and our) toes curl, with the kind of sexual and emotional revelations no teenager ever wants to hear from a parent.
And Gyllenhaal gets his chance to shine too, on his return, when the inevitable consequences creep up on them all. No one’s behaving well, but no one means any harm: it’s a sad tale of human frailty, an affecting tragedy.
The Montana backdrop is beautifully filmed, the hazy smoke a constant reminder of the dual threat the fires pose. There is a slow, almost dreamy quality to the storytelling here, an emotional depth that draws us in with no sensationalism. Mulligan has been widely tipped for an Oscar nomination, and I can absolutely see why. Jeanette is a character of great complexity, the performance nuanced and intricate.
A must-see, I’d say.