Wildlife, Paul Dano’s directorial debut is a fascinating character study starring Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould and Bill Camp.
Paul Dano has surprised audiences with his low – key style of acting, but the roles he’s taken on have been memorable in so many ways. It is with no small measure of pleasure that I say that his directorial debut, the stunning character study, Wildlife is a direct reflection on his low – key, reserved style of acting.
Set in the 1960’s, Jeannette and Jerry Brinson have recently moved to Great Falls, Montana. Jeannette (Carey Mulligan) is a stay-at-home mom, taking care of their teenaged son, Joe (Ed Oxenbould) while Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a man of principle, but he is also someone who likes to take risks, whether they make sense or not.
In an early scene, Jake has taken a job as a caddy. His good nature and humor makes him the perfect type of guy to blend in with the social elites as they wager their way across the links. But, that nature also has a tendency to get himself in to trouble.
It reflects a sense of pride that Jerry has in himself when he is let go. Joe witnesses his dad’s reaction and we learn that father and son are not too dissimilar. Joe is a high school student, trying to fit in with his new classmates. There’s an early discussion about the fires that rage in the mountains above Great Falls and that there’s a hope that the impending snow will put the blaze out.
Joe is exceptionally studious, even when note taking is not required. This attracts a female classmate in Ruth-Ann (Zoe Margaret Colletti) as she mocks him for his note taking skills, a rather awkwardly humorous moment.
Jerry, recklessly takes on the role of a fire fighter. Much like a father going off to war, Jerry falls out of the picture, leaving Joe and Jeannette to fend for themselves. The cat fighting between Jeannette and Jerry just sizzles as Ms. Mulligan and Mr. Gyllenhaal put their all in to their respective roles.
Jeannette is not above begging for a job and after some persuasion, she lands a job as a swim instructor. In the meantime, the studious Joe learns very quickly that he will have to fend for himself and lands a job as an apprentice photographer.
Memories of getting my first job at Joe’s age flooded in as he convinces the photo shop owner that he’s the right man for the job. When he’s asked if he has any experience, Joe quips, “My mom says I’m a quick study.”
Jeannette’s job sees her liberated from the shackles of being a homemaker. I’m not denigrating homemaking as a profession, rather its reflective of the times that the film is set in that she finds satisfaction in taking on work. It leads to a romantic interlude with Warren Miller (Bill Camp).
And this is where Jeannette’s character comes unglued and Ms. Mulligan truly shines. It starts with an innocent question between mother and son with respect to her age, “I’m 34. Is that too old?” Joe suddenly becomes embarrassed, but we can tell that the liberation Jeannette experiences is much more than just being able to get out of the house: she’s promiscuous even towards her son, though she chooses to take her sexual frustrations out on Mr. Miller.
This is where the script by Mr. Dano and Zoe Kazan, based on Richard Ford’s novel of the same name shines. We see the slow, descent in Jeannette’s character and we assume that the interlude leads to something more and in the middle is Joe.
When the snow finally comes, we know that Jerry will return, but by now Jeannette is too far down her rabbit hole for the relationship to be salvaged. And, Jerry who is oblivious to her relations, goes in to a fit of rage. Joe, who understands his dad, tries to stop him, but can’t.
Mr. Dano ends the film on a rather downtrodden note, but it is full of hope: nature finds a way to reclaim what was once lost.
Now in theaters, Wildlife is rated R.