Director: Paul Dano
12A | 1h 44min | Drama | 9 November 2018 (UK)
If I was to be honest, I’ve never found myself having much time for Paul Dano as an actor, but on the basis of his directorial debut Wildlife, I may have underestimated this guy’s talents. Directing from a screenplay co-written by Zoe Kazan, which is based on Richard Ford’s titular novel, Dano has put together a handsomely mounted and well-acted drama that suggest a keen eye both for composition and atmosphere, and a nose for sniffing out the right talent for the job.
Yes, Wildlife’s setting and story arc are somewhat familiar, following the well-trodden path of stories of middle class Americana-flavoured disaffection, which fall short of the Norman Rockwell-esque picture postcard image of the postwar boom when America was the undisputed world superpower and cars were built with real chrome and leather. Think Far From Heaven or Revolutionary Road if you want a comparison. Our POV character is quiet teenager Joe (Ed Oxenbould) who has just endured yet another move thanks to his Dad’s inability to hold down a job, this time to quiet town of Great Falls in Montana, a suburban neighbourhood displaying that quintessentially small-town look of empty long thoroughfares lined with brownstone diners and silver-faced ice cream parlours. But cracks soon show in the facade of this fresh start, with Joe’s frustrated and volatile father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) soon needing to search further afield for work when his inability to stick to the rules in his caddying job lead to him being fired, his macho pride meaning he even spurns with a snort the follow-up apology and offer from a second chance from his regretful boss.
We’ve seen characters like Jerry before, men knocked out of their patriarchal orbit and all-too aware of the watching eyes of their children. Gyllenhaal, looking much older and heavyset then I recall, is fine in this role. But it isn’t really his show, and therein lies WIldlife’s real appeal. The real star here is Carey Mulligan, who plays the (initially, a least) relentlessly chipper mother of the household, Jeanette. When Jerry, seemingly on a whim to re-assert the control he has lost, volunteers for a dollar-a-day firefighting job to help tackle a wildfire that is spreading outside the city borders (the thick smoke looms over the skyline ominously, like a reminder of the risks from the nuclear standoff), Jeanette is left alone with Joe for an open-ended period of time. With the screen fully turned over to her, Mulligan excels as a woman slowly shaking herself awake from the role she has been brought up to expect was always waiting for her: devoted wife, mother and housekeeper. The changes don’t come all at once, and what is particularly interesting is how ambiguous their affect is, on both Joe and Jeanette herself. If you were expecting a joyous explosion of merriment and liberation backed by era-specific songs, be prepared for something else. The changes in Jeanette are as frightening to her and her son as they are freeing. Because this reduced family unit doesn’t know how to process them. Feminism isn’t a household word yet, after all.
One moment Jeanette is breaking out her fancy blouse and makeup kit and pouring more drinks than is considered acceptable for one before evening time; one of several hints of the more liberated and spontaneous lifestyle she enjoyed before doing the time-time-honoured tradition of marrying and falling pregnant at just 20 (she is only 34, barely older than her teen son). The next moment she finds herself snapping at Joe over lunch in a cafeteria over his lack of worldly knowledge, as if she is now free to re-asses her relationship with this young person she produced from her womb when barely out of her teens herself and on whom she has always doted. Then there is her strange affair with a much older businessman who dangles the prospect of a job at his car dealership (Bill Camp), which then leads to an incredibly uncomfortable dinner at his stately home that sees Jeanette ping pong around between seduction, fear and shame as Joe watches stunned. Is this a desperate pursuit of security, or the search for sex on her terms? Is it just a booze-booze-added fuck you to the world that put her in a box so early on?
Gradually, Joe and Jeanette’s relationship starts to shift, to become more distant, and though he is stuck in the somewhat thankless ‘observer’ role, Ed Oxenbould does more than adequately translate over to us the growing fear in this child that his mother isn’t coming back. But the way Jeanete and Joe’s arc plays out in this film never lets us feel that she should, either, and I appreciated that. DP Diego García and production designer Akin McKenzie do a sterling job too of surrounding this fracturing family unit with a suitably lonely autumnal atmosphere, where characters are often framed isolated into little silos by door frames or the edges of walls. A good start to Dano’s career behind the camera.