Paul Dano, an actor known for films such as Prisoners, There Will Be Blood and Little Miss Sunshine has now become the umpteenth actor to try his hand at directing. Like Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born a couple of months ago, Dano’s film is surprising, endearing and impressive, prompting this fan to wonder if there are more talented directors in front of the camera. Dano’s debut is subtle, beautiful and accomplished, powered by performances to die for.
Joe (Ed Oxenbould, fantastic) observes his family’s internal downfall as his father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) loses his job and is forced to accept a potentially dangerous job trying to control and stop a wildfire. Joe’s mother Jeanette (exceptional Carey Mulligan) takes up a job as a swim teacher and attempts to regain her youthful freedom, but grows restless and frustrated with her small suburban life.
Wildlife boils down to the performances of Dano’s gifted actors. Mulligan turns in a fearless performance; she isn’t afraid to make Jeanette ugly in all her frustration and selfishness. Oxenbould injects his performance with just the right amount of sadness, which thankfully never turns melodramatic, although the film cleverly tiptoes the line between a serious drama and a melodrama.
Quietly devastating, Dano never underlines his themes. Joe is forced to assume the role of the man of the house, so integral to the 1950s America that Dano emulates convincingly. Joe and Jeanette’s roles are essentially reversed as Jeanette tests the limits of what she can do with her new-found freedom as a woman. Joe is forced to cook his own dinner and often take care of his mother. Wildlife also includes the most cringe-worthy, yet fascinating date night known to man.
Jeanette’s search for liberation and Joe’s inner turmoil make for an engaging watch. Wildlife’s themes hit close to home to most people as Dano and his partner Zoe Kazan have written a film with fully realised characters, like a smorgasboard, something for everybody. Whether it’s Jerry’s threatened masculinity due to his inability to provide for his family, Joe’s forced entry into early adulthood or Jeanette’s frustrations and newly found sexuality, there’s a lot in Wildlife to munch on. The symbolical wildfire, burning so bright and destroying everything in its way provides a great backdrop for this family’s crumbling. The film provides lots to think and talk about, but it’s best digested alone, reflected upon within your own mind and your own experiences.
If the film has a weakness, it’s Gyllenhaal. After Jerry leaves for the wildfire, Gyllenhaal’s presence is gravely missed. It’s hard to have such a huge star in such a small role and not have the audience miss them. It’s not a case of Mulligan and Oxenbould not able to hold their own, but Mulligan and Gyllenhaal are both incredibly talented character actors and watch them bounce off each other is the film’s greatest pleasure. The film’s final shot is full of pain, longing and regret. All communicated through the words that weren’t and aren’t being said, the looks avoided and hands not held. There is a lingering sense of a life not lived, a promise not fulfilled in Dano’s last frame. Like phantom pain, there is a feeling of something that once was there and is now gone, but is somehow still causing the characters indescribable pain.