THE METICULOUSLY CRAFTED images from Paul Dano’s outstanding debut movie Wildlife (from the book of the same name by Richard Ford) are a combination of Edward Hopper and Life magazine. Like the protagonists of the story, they are images of emptiness, loneliness and desolation.
This is the beginning of the sixties. And once again, the Brinson family (Jerry -Jake Gyllenhaal-, Jeanette -Carrie Mulligan – and Joe – Ed Oxenbould – their fourteen year old son) have moved in search of work. The job Jerry’s managed to land, as an obsequious attendant at a golf club, won’t last long. And once again, he – too proud to ‘allow’ his wife to work, or even for the kind of job he’s prepared to accept – is in need of a job.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. He joins up as part of a crew of equally desperate men, willing to risk their lives for $1.00 and hour, fighting wildfires that are raging somewhere upstate.
She, left to manage on her own, must, like the wildlife threatened by the fires, learn how to adapt or die. Carrie Mulligan (Mudbound, Far From the Madding Crowd) is such an extraordinary actor that really she needs no script to convey her feelings. Her face tells all; every slight hint of emotion is writ large there. And it is a face that slowly changes from one of gaiety and sympathetic support to joylessness and despair. The actor seems to grow increasingly haggard as the story unfolds…as her character tries to find whatever means she can, to retain at least the veneer of middle class “respectability”.
Her innocent, uncomprehending son, Joe, through whose bewildered eyes we see much of the action tries to help out by getting a part time job. He’s a photographer’s assistant…taking the portraits of people eager to strike a pose, a pretence, of happiness. He’s uncomprehending when his mother, decked out in a flashy yellow dress, her “desperation dress”, takes him along to have dinner with the town’s elderly, rich car franchisee, Mr. Miller (Bill Camp: Red Sparrow, The Looming Tower, Molly’s Game)
Desperate times call for desperate measures.
The bigger portrait we’re seeing is of the archetypal nuclear family crumbling before our eyes. Jerry, the father, feeling lessened by his inability to provide flees to face up to his own hell; Jeanette, the mother throws all caution to the wind, shucks off her maternal role and gives in to her circumstances. It is the son, Joe, shorn of parental guidance and responsibility that has to manage somehow.
Dano’s world is the part of America that, unlike Mr. Miller, has somehow been left out of the upwardly mobile post-war boom. They are the people Miller describes with typical capitalist indifference as too incompetent to grow rich. These are the ones fighting their own internal wildfires and learning how best to adapt or die; and perhaps not knowing the difference between the two.
This is a small movie (At times it feels like an adaptation of a play) with a huge emotional footprint. It’s a thoughtful, intellectually rich story, co written by Dano’s accomplished partner, Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks). Gyllenhaal, subtle and outstanding as always, was its co producer. They’re a formidable team. As the lost, nerdy, surprisingly strong son, Ed Oxenbould (The Butterfly Tree) is compelling…un-intimidated by the acting firepower around him.
Wildlife is probably not show-ey enough to get an Oscar nod. But this, along with The Wife and American Animals are among the best of this year.
WILDLIFE Dir/writer: Paul Dano (as an actor: 12 Years a Slave. TV: War and Peace). Co-Writer: Zoe Kazan. With: Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould, Bill Camp. Production Designer: Akin McKenzie. Cinematographer: Diego Garcia