Directed By Paul Dano
Starring – Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould
The Plot – Adapted from Richard Ford’s novel of the same name, Mulligan stars as Jeanette, a complex woman whose self-determination and self-involvement disrupts the values and expectations of a 1960s nuclear family. Fourteen-year-old Joe (Oxenbould), is the only child of Jeanette and Jerry (Gyllenhaal); a housewife and a golf pro in a small town in 1960s Montana. Nearby, an uncontrolled forest fire rages close to the Canadian border, and when Jerry loses his job, and his sense of purpose–he decides to join the cause of fighting the fire, leaving his wife and son to fend for themselves. Suddenly forced into the role of an adult, Joe witnesses his mother’s struggle as she tries to keep her head above water.
Rated PG-13 for thematic material including a sexual situation, brief strong adult language, and smoking
– Dano’s first dive into the director’s chair. There’s much to be commended about Paul’s calm, stately compositions in the form of visual aesthetics, which I will get to later, that shook me, but it’s the psychological grip on this story and characters that cemented him as a future must-see artist. In presenting this film from the boy’s point of view, Dano accurately channels what it means to be 14, in the very helplessness and hopelessness that comes with divorce. There’s this suffocating weight that overtakes the environment and the characters whole, shaping them into shadows of themselves once the air of inevitability has been emitted from it, and I found this film to be sharply effective throughout.
– Perfect place and time. In setting the film in Montana, at the pulse of an evolving America during the nuclear age, Dano perfectly encapsulates the loneliness derived from the many missteps that the parental characters take. Despite the primary setting being this house on an everyday street, the people inside feel isolated from the rest of the world, and keeping this cast limited in numbers only adds to this effect. Mulligan even echoes in the film “Why would a man move us to a place that is plagued with such loneliness?”, and while I can’t quite pinpoint why Gyllenhaal’s Jerry made this move, I can say that Dano sees the value of urban decay in such a town. A place once built on dreams that the rest of the world has since left behind. That thought process alone also serves as a metaphor for this collapsing family.
– Creative uses with the soundtrack and musical score. First of all, I loved the work in tones of David Lang’s score. There’s this unshakeable tragedy from within the ominous organs and piano work that fill the film, but it’s perhaps the way it is inserted along with the 60’s diner soundtrack that really serves its purpose. Much of the music in the film is played at such a minimal level of volume that you almost miss it, instead serving as the reminder of the particular year that never oversteps its boundaries, and lets the actors themselves steal the moments. I praise any composer willing to take whatever role the film gives them, and while the work of Lang is off in the distance, it never goes unnoticed with how it audibly narrates the unfolding drama and tension of every scene.
– Lets talk about the photography in the film, because everything and everyone inside look like inspiration from a Norman Rockwell painting. Dano values reaction as much as he does instinct, and how he manages to master both is this variation between intimate close-ups when characters are speaking with one another, and these deliberate POV angles when the intended reaction sets in. During the latter, we the audience feel like a member embattled in the overbearing drama of this family, because they are speaking to us behind the camera, and what’s really important is Dano never overuses this gimmick, instead choosing to save it for when the anger, despair, and curiosity reaches its peak in each particular scene.
– Hit and miss performances. Mulligan and Gyllenhaal are seasoned veterans at this thing. They are two accomplished actors who can turn on and off their dramatic switch when needed, and know how to make the most in every scene. For Jake, it’s the longing to be what he wants to be for his family, but can never quite attain it, and that unnerving conscience from the inside often plays itself outside in a lot of his performance. Mulligan easily steals the show, at times playing what feels like two different sides of Jeanette with impeccable believability. For the more compelling side, Jeanette feels like the ghost of regrets past, transforming before our very eyes into someone we barely recognize anymore. If Carey knows anything, it’s timing for such a switch, and as an actress she’s someone who knows how to envelope every side of audience reaction for her character. She deserves an Oscar nomination at least for how much she is asked to carry this film. Which brings me to my only disappointment in the cast being that of Oxenbould as our main protagonist. This is definitely Ed’s best work to date, but the role requires a gut-wrenching pull of empathy for this kid that I felt was never fully realized. All of his reactions from start to finish are the same, feeling like dirt on his shoulder instead of the walls of his world coming down.
– Depth in coloring palette. Cinematographer Diego Garcia puts on an artistic feast for us, illustrating a festering of light as the film progresses. When the movie begins, we are presented the warm, flowing levels of sunlight shining through the windows to represent the prosperity and solitude of this family’s current fortunes. But as the unpredictable starts to spin, and one thing leads to the next, we quickly realize the cold, callous, and almost colorless compass that speaks levels to the love that is bleeding out from within. I’m a sucker for colorful context in the form of these beautiful articulations of visuals, and “Wildlife” is anything but an abstract painting from the gifted mind of Garcia.
– Deconstruction of the American family. Whether you’re a product of divorce like I am, or not, the movie has strong crossover appeal because it relates this progressive side of understanding where it all went wrong. The film isn’t blaming Jake or Jeanette for the family’s mishaps, instead etching out this idea that this family’s problems were a long time burning, and it’s commendable for a film that could easily blame this all on the woman once again, to instead instill that it does indeed take two to tango. Also, because of such, I look forward to future re-watches, so that I can study the communication between these two a little tighter, and telegraph what other little clues I may have missed.
– Two of my favorite shots of the movie. While there are no shortage of reputable scenes that you can bring to the forefront of topical discussion, two come to mind when it comes to what impressed me. The first is an outside shot, in which we see Joe tucked away in his room, far away from Jake and Jeanette who are in the kitchen. This shot speaks levels not only to the distance that has shaped this family into virtual strangers of one another, but also in the body language of each character, that long for the love that they themselves are afraid to invest in. The second shot is actually that of the poster, which cleverly incorporates itself into the final shot of the movie. I don’t want to give anything away here, but there’s an abstract closing moment that I’m dying to discuss with people, in if they took it as an optimistic or pessimistic goodbye to the future of this haunted-by-their-memories family. Either way, Dano and equally talented cast stir the nerves from within, sending you home with the two best sequences of the film in the final five minutes.
– While I didn’t have a problem with the slow-burn of the pacing, the lack of momentum built between scenes had this feeling like a series of individual events with little magnetics, instead of a cohesive mass that constantly kept me glued. Each scene feels like you’re starting out again, in the form of episodic drama, and this sometimes contrives the fluidity of basic screenwriting.
– Run time limitations. I sometimes felt throughout the 99 minute run time that character realizations were sometimes unfulfilled, based on the extreme nature of their actions. That’s not to say that these kind of things wouldn’t happen in real life, but rather the lack of proper build along the way made such a jump feel comical to say the least. One such scene involves a fire near the end of the film, and it’s just kind of put away without any kind of weight of consequences to make a certain character finally pay for some terrible things he is responsible for. No epiphany ever takes place, and that’s the biggest problem from a moral standpoint.
My Grade: 8/10 or B+