Haunting story about flawed parents
Aboy’s world falls to pieces in Wildlife,
Paul Dano’s brutal and beautiful adaptation of Richard Ford’s 1990 novel. Dano, the distinctively wan-looking actor who played the implosive teenager, Dwayne, in Little Miss Sunshine, makes his directorial debut here, and it’s a terrific piece of work in nearly every way. Most notably, Wildlife marks the best performance from Carey Mulligan since her breakout turn in
An Education nearly 10 years ago. Wildlife is set in Great Falls, Montana — a favourite Ford location — during what the novel pegs as the fall of 1960. Its focus is on the Brinson family, who moved here with middle-class aspirations: Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a golf pro at a local club, Jeanette (Mulligan) stays at home and their son, Joe (Ed Oxenbould), plays high-school football. This Rockwell-esque picture changes when Jerry loses his job. Over Jeanette’s objections, he joins a volunteer firefighting crew that will take him to a blaze miles away for several weeks.
Within days, Jeanette reverts to something Joe never knew she had been: A fast-moving flirt who loves pretty dresses and male attention. She finds the latter in Warren Miller (Bill Camp), a wealthy car dealer, who begins coming around at hours he shouldn’t. Before long, Joe seems to be living with a rebellious, delinquent teenager — and he’s illequipped to rein her in.
Mulligan is extraordinary as Jeanette. She can deliver a single line with so many emotions — giddiness, desperation, regret, rage — that each one feels like a little play. Dano helps by drawing our eyes to details: Jeanette’s lipstick appears one day, announces a whole new personality and then, just as suddenly, it’s gone.
Wildlife feels like a companion piece to Indignation (2016), James Schamus’ adaptation of a Philip Roth novel. The films have more in common than an inscrutable title: Both are from first-time directors; both are based on lesserknown works by great American authors; and both tell stories about midcentury teenage boys whose eyes are opened to ugliness. There are moments when
Wildlife paints Joe too clearly as the picture of innocence lost, but Oxenbould makes the character work. A young actor with a slight lisp and all-seeing eyes, Oxenbould is the secret star of this film. “What’s going to happen to us?” Joe demands of his disappointing parents. It’s a question they can’t seem to answer. —