There is a pretty wide selection of good cinema available right now but let’s stick with the theme of first-time directors. There’s something inherently passionate about a first project. Typically there’s a minimal budget and a blissful ignorance guiding the ship but, when we are lucky, it translates to a unique (hopefully) and worthwhile on-screen experience. Wildlife appears to be one of those movies…but it may take a while to gets its due.
This was Paul Dano’s directorial debut and he showed a good eye for cinema. As an actor, he has always been on the eclectic side of the spectrum and that translated into his work behind the camera. The screenplay is adapted from Richard Ford’s book of the same name and Dano wrote the movie (another first for him) with Zoe Kazan who had previously written and starred in Ruby Sparks in 2012. Tackling this adaptation was an odd choice, to say the least, but you might as well swing for the fences. The plot itself wasn’t particularly engaging as it followed a teenage boy observing his parents’ marriage collapse during 1960 in Montana. However, the character writing was compelling enough to make up the difference. The young filmmaker and his writing partner displayed a strong understanding of the narrative perspective. Serving as a finely tuned character portrait, the film works very well at times and funnels all the ambient energy in the right direction. This is a tense, brooding drama and Dano honed in on the key elements well.
The focal point of the film is unequivocally Carey Mulligan in the lead as Jeanette Brinson and the buzz surrounding her performance is well deserved. Mulligan has been on the scene for over a decade but this was her command performance. It was a calculated unraveling that’s often uncomfortable to watch as she puts her son front row for the steep degradation of her poise. After her husband temporarily abandons them after losing his job and struggling with depression, Jeanette is left to figure things out quickly in an unfamiliar environment and her behavior takes a drastic turn. Circumstance often dictates action and Mulligan captured a wide range of emotional havoc in her portrayal. Best Actress is always an incredibly tough category, and the competition is particularly strong this year, but it would be a shame if she didn’t make the list of nominees.
She was flanked on opposite sides by Jake Gyllenhaal and Ed Oxenbould. Adding to his wildly diverse portfolio with another strong performance, Jake played the husband, Jerry. His actions act as the catalyst but he is more of a peripheral character down the stretch. After losing his job as a country club pro, he struggles to find work and decides to leave his family to fight an epic forest fire in the mountains. This is a weird move by a husband and father that’s never fully explained because he isn’t central to the narrative focus. His character served more as an example of how society views the actions of men in contrast to women, especially then. He does, however, bookend the film with strong showings as a father trying to provide for his kid to the best of his ability. This wasn’t the kind of role where he was featured but there are moments of sharp excellence throughout his portrayal, they are just few and far between. Gyllenhaal isn’t going to win any awards for this but that shouldn’t detract from yet another quality performance.
This is a very nuanced portrayal of a nuclear family in crisis, including the straight-laced son Joe. Oxenbould held his own with some experienced pros and, in many ways, this was the toughest role of the three. Jerry and Jeanette had very acute trajectories but Joe was left wavering in the middle, forced to watch his family disintegrate. Ultimately it’s his story that we’re watching, so he serves as a kind of narrator and moral compass. Despite his position and the personal toll it takes, he doesn’t pass judgment on the actions of his parents which is a key element of this story being set in 1960. If this were a contemporary telling, we’d see Joe vilifying his parents and acting out in a variety of ways. In that regard, Oxenbould played the stalwart son to a tee and did a really good job as the glue trying to hold his family together.
Bill Camp was great in a supporting role as Mr. Miller, an older man who takes an interest in Jeanette after Jerry leaves. Camp is one of those character actors you’ve probably seen before and just didn’t know it but he leaves a definite fingerprint on this story. Miller is a wealthy, older man who runs a car dealership and takes swim lessons from Jeanette. The pretext of their relationship dissolves rather quickly and Camp shined with controlled lechery. To the audience, there is no secret as to what’s going on but we’re viewing the relationship through the eyes of Joe who just doesn’t know any better. The whole situation is awkward enough, but the veteran character actor’s portrayal of Miller drove the point home emphatically.
Besides a number of strong performances, Diego García’s cinematography was stellar. He has worked on almost exclusively foreign films, most notably the Brazilian film Neon Bull, and it certainly provided him with a different take on presentation. The whole visual backdrop for the film was somewhat bland: set in Montana, waiting for winter, with a forest fire raging in the background. There is just a beige air looming over everything, so bringing that environment to life was a challenge. He showed a strong awareness of natural light, often shooting at night and in low light situations to amplify any colored light sources and break up the monotony of the drab daytime environment. From a narrative perspective, most of the key plot moments happened at night so the juxtaposition of a warm and passionate underbelly against a banal daylight existence was masterfully executed. Although it was subtle in execution, this was some of the better behind the camera work so far this year. Hopefully, García gets the recognition he deserves for it.
Period pieces wouldn’t go very far without authenticity and Akin McKenzie made sure that wasn’t an issue with the production design. The location team did a really nice job picking out the right neighborhoods to exemplify the era. Melissa Jusufi did a really nice job with the set decoration, helping draw the viewers’ eye in one direction or another. Rounding out the visual matrix, Amanda Ford tailored some great wardrobe choices for the cast…especially for Jeanette who undergoes a vibrant character transformation. The slightest bit of color stood out against the otherwise pale background.
Not every film has a built-in audience and this felt like one of those. Strong performances and strong filmmaking go a long way but don’t always translate into success and/or recognition. This was a film I enjoyed more for its craftsmanship than its entertainment value. It wasn’t boring, just kind of monotonous.
Recommendation: Carey Mulligan’s performance is worth the price of admission but it’s much easier to take that chance when you have a theater subscription service. For people who’ve either watched their parents go through a divorce or who have been through one themselves, there’s probably more emotional resonance on the table. This movie was in limited release and may be hard to find but should still be making the rounds and smaller theaters.