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NYFF Review: ‘Wildlife’ is a gorgeous but imperfect directorial debut for Paul Dano

Written by: Lauren Humphries-Brooks, CC2K Staff Writer

Paul Dano’s directorial debut Wildlife has been making the festival rounds before its theatrical release on October 19th. Based on the novel by Richard Ford, the film is an ambitious project for Dano and co-screenwriter Zoe Kazan, as they attempt to craft a quiet and intense chamber drama about a family eking out an existence in 1960s Montana. The story is told through the eyes of a teenage boy as he watches his parents’ marriage crumble, and the seething animosities it reveals.

The film focalizes its narrative through Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould), a teenager recently settled down in a small town in Montana, where his father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) works as a pro at the local golf course, and his mother Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) stays at home to play the role of dutiful 1960s housewife as best she can. The family dynamic comes apart when Jerry loses his job and struggles to find another, and Jeanette is obliged to look for work. The tensions reach a height after Jerry accepts a position as a firefighter, battling a wildfire raging in the nearby mountains, and leaves his family for weeks on end. In her husband’s absence, Jeanette seeks outlets for her loneliness and anger, while Joe, frightened for his father and uncomfortable around his mother, attempts to make sense of the family falling apart around him.

Wildlife spends much of its first act setting up the family dynamic only to upend it once Jerry departs for the fire. The rift between Jerry and Jeanette develops in the form of words rarely spoken, dinner table conversations that peter out into tension-filled silences. The couple are somewhat happy, or at least not at odds, while Jerry is employed, though there are hints that Jeanette wants to be able to move outside the home. The film parcels out bits of the family’s past—how Jerry is regularly unemployed, how he has uprooted his family more than once, how Jeanette was once a school teacher and now has no social life or friends. “Your parents were not always your parents,” she tells Joe, as she recalls the few years before her marriage. That refrain develops throughout, forming a thematic undercurrent of the personal needs and self-hood that are sacrificed in the effort to maintain a household.

Gyllenhaal and Mulligan are well-matched in their intensity. Gyllenhaal gives a haunting, hollow-eyed performance as a man struggling to maintain his self-worth without acknowledging he sacrifices his family’s happiness at the altar of masculine pride. He removes himself from the family dynamic ostensibly to benefit them, but the choice is also Jerry’s way of coping with his lack of independence. He goes to face the fire as part of a basic, undefined urge within him, just as surely as his wife has to break out of the bonds of marriage and motherhood. Gyllenhaal finds great depth in this character. He’s not struggling with masculinity, per se, but with discovering self-worth. As he embraces his son, he says, “You know that men love each other, too,” but he cannot remain behind to express that love, either for his son or his wife.

After Jerry leaves, Joe longs for the relative stability of his father’s presence, as his mother’s penetrating, furious unhappiness permeates his life. The second act shifts focus from Jerry to Jeanette, who reacts with undisguised fury at her husband’s departure. She is scathingly unhappy but, like Jerry, struggles to find an outlet for her needs. She brings home Warren Miller (Bill Camp), the owner of a local car dealership, claiming that he’s agreed to hire her. Joe knows there’s more going on, but his mother attempts to shield him from knowledge about the relationship’s nature, and use him as a buffer between herself and Miller. Mulligan’s performance all but overshadows the film—her Jeanette is sympathetic without driving the sympathy too far; her anger palpable, even if she never rages; her pain and confusion prevalent in every twitch of Mulligan’s expressive face and body. In a pivotal sequence, she and Joe go to dinner at Miller’s house, where she pushes back against the assumptions made about her and her sexuality, but is also desperate to dance, get drunk, have sex, lose herself and her responsibilities as thoroughly as Jerry appears to have lost his. Mulligan accesses a woman who resents the role she has to play, and is unable to escape from under the burdens financial, social, and emotional, she’s taken on.

Wildlife features a small group of characters and interior spaces, consistently dwarfed by the mountains that confine and threaten them. The town itself is a warren of empty streets beneath the mountains, emphasizing the family’s isolation. Dano has a deft camera eye, and there are some moments of stark, terrifying beauty he exploits with a very sure hand. But his slow-paced technique often frustrates; there are too many extended dolly shots as characters move in and out of spaces, and more than a few sequences of Joe watching things the audience hardly sees that too long delay the catharsis of revelation. For all of Dano’s restraint in the first two acts, Wildlife falls apart in its finale. It devolves into a melodramatic battle that attempts to find meaning in elements introduced too late, or not given enough attention throughout.

It’s a shame Wildlife does not fulfill its potential, because there is much to love about it. Because of Joe’s focalization, Wildlife places the viewer in the position of a child witnessing the breakdown of his parents’ marriage without being able to fully understand the motivations behind it. Ed Oxenbould is a young actor to watch; he has the unenviable task of matching screen presence with Mulligan and Gyllenhaal, and not only is he not upstaged, he often dominates the screen. While he is far more at peace with his self-hood than his parents, surer-footed than either, he is also a child navigating grown-up relationships, who needs stability and there are no adults around to help him find it.

One of Wildlife’s starkest moments comes after Jerry has left. Jeanette takes her son on a drive through the mountains, towards the blazing wildfire. But they’re not looking for Jerry. Jeanette tells her son to get out and look, to see the thing his father has left them for. The camera lingers on Joe’s face as the noises of the fire roar across the soundtrack. The sublime terror is written in the boy’s eyes– the combination of a desire to run, like a small animal, and to remain staring into the face of destruction. It’s moments like these that raise Wildlife above its flaws, and make it a film that, while imperfect, is worth taking the time to study.

Rating: 3 Stars out of 5