Wildlife

(Dano, 2018)

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Based on the Richard Ford novel of the same name, Wildlife tells the story of a family on the brink of collapse in 1960s Montana. With a nuanced script, skillful directing, and outstanding performances from its leading actors, Wildlife is the best kind of slow burn. It’s a drama that crackles until it reaches its inevitable explosion. It cannot be overstated: Paul Dano’s directorial debut is a masterwork.

Wildlife follows Jerry and Jeanette Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan), a couple whose marriage is disintegrating. After losing his job, Jerry leaves his family to fight wildfires, while Jeanette begins an amorous relationship with the owner of a local car dealership (Bill Camp). The entire film is shown through the eyes of Joe (Ed Oxenbould), the Brinsons’ fourteen-year-old son who quietly and contemplatively witnesses the destruction of his own family unit. Not knowing if his father will ever return, Joe is forced to observe the dissolution of his mother’s sanity as she attempts to leave her rocky relationship with Jerry behind. Jeanette’s brazen openness puts Joe on the front lines of her battle, as he gains intimate knowledge of his parents’ crumbling marriage and his mother’s new affair. The audience too is granted this access, as we are unquestionably connected to Joe for the duration of the film. He is our eyes and ears, as there are very few scenes without him. Ed Oxenbould’s performance is one of the best from any young actor this year. He brings a great perceptiveness to the character, patiently giving Joe time to decode the other characters’ actions and interpret them for himself. Oxenbould also allows Joe to be vulnerable, though not in an obvious way. Joe’s vulnerability is apparent, but he is always course-correcting, constantly playing the part of a well-adjusted kid. In a way, Joe is at war with himself. There are two sides to his personality, and they are both reflections of his parents. Joe has inherited Jerry’s silent, internalized nature as well as Jeanette’s outgoing, ineptly-constructed facade. And just as his parents are in conflict, so is he. Oxenbould effectively reflects his more experienced co-stars, with his performance mimicking more that of Gyllenhaal’s or Mulligan’s characters depending on their pairing in the scene. But when both Jerry and Jeanette are present, Joe shrinks to the status of an observer, unsure of who to be when both of his role models are at their worst.

Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of a housewife-in-crisis is the crown jewel of the film, and it is as startling as it is sad. Jeanette’s manic emotional state and irrational choices make her one of the most interesting movie characters of the year. Like Joe, Jeanette is a character who is constantly changing the way she acts and the way she is perceived. Her big shift in characterization comes after Jerry leaves to fight the wildfires. The woman who was once soft-spoken and polite morphs instantly into someone who is boisterous, flirty, and sardonic. Her actions defy logic, as she brings Joe to the house of the man with whom she is having an affair and even speaks to him openly about her feelings. But just as quickly as she leans on Joe for emotional support, she jettisons him in favor of anything else— a man, a drink, at one point even a good song. It is hard to put Jeanette or Mulligan’s portrayal of her into words, but it should be noted that her performance is undoubtedly the best of her career and one she should be remembered for.

 

Jake Gyllenhaal has the smallest part of the three principal characters, with his biggest impact coming in the first act. That being said, he does a great job as a supporting actor, boosting the characterizations of Joe and Jeanette. Gyllenhaal’s precise performance at the beginning of the film benefits its middle, when his character is notably absent. The blank space where Jerry should be is filled by Bill Camp’s Mr. Miller, who stands in for the family’s patriarch to varying degrees of success. Joe is reluctant to accept Mr. Miller into his life, while Jeanette runs head on at the opportunity. But no matter the reaction, Jerry’s absence is the smoke plume that hangs over the film, visually represented by the literal smoke plume from the wildfires that inches closer and closer to their sleepy Montana town.

Aside from the great performances, Wildlife also features excellent writing, directing, and cinematography. Dano tag-teamed with his partner Zoe Kazan to write the script, which is based on one of his favorite novels. Dano has stated that when he read the book he felt like it was written for him. His connection to the material is even mirrored in Oxenbould, who seems to be a clear stand-in for Dano himself (Dano too moved to a new town at fourteen, and the two actors even look alike). As director, Dano effectively plants the film in Joe’s point of view. It often seems as if the answer to what is happening is just beyond our reach, and that is because it is just beyond his. Additionally, Dano worked very closely with his actors, often allowing them to decide how long to spend on each scene. Some actors-turned-directors fail to make a successful transition, but Dano seems to have done so effortlessly, lifting his immense knowledge of acting and injecting it into the leadership role. By his side is cinematographer Diego García, who captures the social mundanity and private pain of small-town life through his shot selection. But just as important as what is in the frame, is what is outside of it. García plays with the audience’s expectations of the story, shielding them from moments out of Joe’s view. Jeanette’s public life and the ever-present wildfires that are burning around the state are only sparsely shown, as Joe himself is rare to witness them. However, fleeting moments that show an omniscient perspective remind the audience of the looming dangers of both nature and personality. The film is not called “Wildfire,” because it is not about the fire. It is about the creatures whose home are threatened by it. The families, broken or otherwise, who are reluctant to leave their nooks.

Wildlife asks if you can love someone who brings you pain. Or conversely, if you can cause pain to someone you love? The line between love and pain in is thin and translucent, but rather than focus in on one specific moral, Dano’s camera floats between the three characters, who each possess different versions of the answer. ★★★★★

Wildlife follows Jerry and Jeanette Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan), a couple whose marriage is disintegrating in 1960s Montana. After losing his job, Jerry leaves the family to fight wildfires, while Jeanette begins an amorous relationship with the owner of a local car dealership (Bill Camp). The entire film is shown through the eyes of Joe (Ed Oxenbould), the Brinsons’ fourteen-year-old son who quietly and contemplatively witnesses the destruction of his family unit. Not knowing if his father will ever return, Joe is forced to observe the dissolution of his mother’s sanity as she attempts to leave her rocky relationship with Jerry behind. Jeanette’s brazen openness puts Joe on the front lines of this battle, as he gains intimate knowledge of his parents’ crumbling marriage and his mother’s new affair. The audience too is granted this access, as we are unquestionably connected to Joe for the duration of the film. He is our eyes and ears, as there are very few scenes without him. Ed Oxenbould’s performance is one of the best from any young actor this year. He brings a great perceptiveness to the character, patiently giving Joe time to decode the other characters’ actions and interpret them for himself. Oxenbould also allows Joe to be vulnerable, though not in the obvious way. Joe’s vulnerability is apparent, but he is always course-correcting, constantly playing the part of a well-adjusted kid. In a way, Joe is at war with himself. There are two sides to his personality, and they are both reflections of his parents. Joe has inherited Jerry’s silent, internalized nature as well as Jeanette’s outgoing, ineptly-constructed facade. And just as Joe’s parents are in conflict, so is he. Oxenbould effectively reflects his more experienced co-stars, with his performance mimicking more that of Gyllenhaal’s or Mulligan’s characters depending on their pairing in the scene. But when both Jerry and Jeanette are present, Joe shrinks to the status of an observer, unsure of who to be when both of his role models are at their worst.

Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of a housewife-in-crisis is the crown jewel of the film, and it is as startling as it is sad. Jeanette’s manic emotional state and irrational choices make her one of the most interesting movie characters of the year. Like Joe, Jeanette is a character who is constantly changing the way she acts and the way she is perceived. Her big shift in characterization comes after Jerry leaves to fight the wildfires. The woman who was once soft-spoken and polite morphs instantly into someone who is boisterous, flirty, and sardonic. Her actions defy logic, as she brings Joe to the house of the man with whom she is having an affair and even speaks to him openly about her feelings. But just as quickly as she leans on Joe for emotional support, she jettisons him in favor of anything else-- a man, a drink, at one point even a good song. It is hard to put Jeanette or Mulligan’s portrayal of her into words, but it should be noted that her performance is undoubtedly the best of her career and one she should be remembered for. Jake Gyllenhaal has the smallest part of the three principal characters, with his biggest impact coming in the first act. That being said, he does a great job as a supporting actor, boosting the characterizations of Joe and Jeanette. Gyllenhaal’s precise performance at the beginning of the film benefits the middle, when his character is notably absent. The blank space where Jerry should be is filled by Bill Camp’s Mr. Miller, who stands in for the family’s patriarch to varying degrees of success. Joe is reluctant to accept Mr. Miller into his life, while Jeanette runs head on at the opportunity. But no matter the reaction, Jerry’s absence is the smoke plume that hangs over the film (visually represented by the literal smoke plume from the wildfires that inches closer and closer to their sleepy Montana town).

Aside from the great performances, Wildlife also features excellent writing, directing, and cinematography. Dano tag-teamed with his partner Zoe Kazan to write the script, which is based on the novel by Robert Ford. Dano has stated that when he read the book he felt like it was written for him. His connection to the material is even mirrored in Oxenbould, who seems to be a clear stand-in for Dano himself (Dano too moved to a new town at fourteen, and the two actors even look alike). As director, Dano effectively plants the film in Joe’s point of view. It often seems as if the answer to what is happening is just beyond our reach, and that is because it is just beyond his. Additionally, Dano worked very closely with his actors, often allowing them to decide how long to spend on each scene. Some actors-turned-directors fail to make a successful transition, but Dano seems to have done so effortlessly, lifting his immense knowledge of acting and injecting it into the leadership role. By his side is cinematographer Diego García, who captures the social mundanity and private pain of small-town life through his shot selection. But just as important as what is in the frame, is what is outside of it. García plays with the audience’s expectations of the story, shielding them from moments out of Joe’s view. Jeanette’s public life and the ever-present wildfires that are burning around the state are only sparsely shown, as Joe himself is rare to witness them. However, fleeting moments that show an omniscient perspective remind the audience of the looming dangers of both nature and personality. The film is not called “Wildfire” because it is not about the fire. It is about the creatures whose home are threatened by it. The families, broken or otherwise, who are reluctant to leave their nooks.

Wildlife asks if you can love someone who brings you pain. Or conversely, if you can cause pain to someone you love? The line between love and pain in is thin and translucent, but rather than focus in on one specific moral, Dano’s camera floats between the three characters, who each possess different versions of the answer. ★★★★★


David Merkle