WILDLIFE

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Paul Dano

Stars: Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould, Bill Camp.

Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan, and Ed Oxenbould in Wildlife (2018)The opening night film for the Melbourne International Film Festival this year was Wildlife, a small coming of age drama which marks the directorial debut for Paul Dano, an actor better known for playing troubled and eccentric characters in films like Little Miss Sunshine and Prisoners, etc. Wildlife marks an auspicious directorial debut.

Set in Montana in the 1960s this is a coming of age drama about the Brinson family and the disintegration of their marriage. Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal, from Nightcrawler, etc) is a foolish but proud man but is unable to hold down a job. When he is fired from his position as a golf pro at the local country club the cracks begin to show in the marriage. His wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan, from An Education, etc) becomes increasingly aware of his shortcomings. Then Jerry enlists as a volunteer to go and fight a wild fire raging out of control in the mountains. While he is away Joe finds part time work with a local photographer and Jeanette begins an affair with local shoe salesman Warren Miller (Bill Camp).

Events are seen from the perspective of their teenage son Joe (played by Australian actor Ed Oxenbould, from Paper Planes, The Visit, etc), who experiences the pain and confusion as his parents virtually become strangers to each other. AS the marriage falls apart, the adolescent Joe has to deal with the wreckage.

Wildlife is based on the 1990 novel written by Richard Ford, widely regarded as one of the finest writers of his generation. Dano was grabbed by the evocative opening of Ford’s book and attracted by his lean prose and poetic style. The novel resonated strongly with him over the years, which is what motivated him to write to Ford seeking to acquire the film rights.  This is something of a passion project for Dano, who adapted the novel with his partner Zoe Kazan, with whom he co-starred in 2012’s offbeat comedy Ruby Sparks. This gently paced and quiet film is an exploration of love and pain and the messiness of life.

This is a tender and gorgeous looking film that is steeped in an authenticity and suffused with an air of foreboding. During his career Dano has worked with a number of great contemporary filmmakers and he has obviously studied their approach to filmmaking. He understands the power of silence and stillness, which adds to the impact of the drama. The film has been beautifully shot in widescreen by cinematographer Diego Garcia (Neon Bull, etc), who captures some great vistas of the rural Montana locations, and he also captures the slow pace and rhythms of life in small town America. Diego also works in closeup at times giving the film an emotionally claustrophobic feel.

As an actor himself Dano obviously knows how to work with his actors, and he draws strong but subtly nuanced and effective performances from his cast. Gyllenhaal is strong as the conflicted Jerry, whose failings as a man and a father become more apparent as the film moves along, and he delivers a largely internalised performance. However, there are a couple of scenes in which his emotions spill over to the surface. His weary expression and blackened eyes add texture to his tired, beaten down character. Mulligan is strong as the frustrated Jeanette who finds sexual liberation, and although her character is not exactly sympathetic she still holds our attention. Oxenbould, who has been establishing a wonderful career in just a few short years, is a revelation here. He delivers another great, subtle, intelligent, nuanced and confident performance that effortlessly conveys the pain and confusion Joe feels as he watches events unfold.

Although well-acted and beautifully directed and shot, Wildlife is a bit of a slow burn, downbeat and grim drama that will not be to everyone’s taste.

★★★☆

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