The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - THE TAKE CRITICS’ CHOICE -


There’s a Ber­muda Tri­an­gle of sorts that sits at the cen­ter of Wildlife ,an ab­sorb­ing yet off-kil­ter do­mes­tic drama from first-time film­maker Paul Dano, the ac­tor turned direc­tor who, with ac­tress and sig­nif­i­cant other Zoe Kazan, has adapted Richard Ford’s dis­turb­ing 1990 novel of a fam­ily un­rav­el­ling. In the midst of this stormy zone, the lives of three peo­ple get sucked into a quiet yet re­lent­less vor­tex of dys­func­tion: brood­ing, al­co­holic golf pro Jerry Brin­son (Jake Gyl­len­haal); his vi­va­cious yet un­ful­filled wife, Jeanette (Carey Mul­li­gan); and their be­wil­dered 14-year-old son, Joe (Ed Ox­en­bould). Writ­ten and directed with an un­canny ear for Ford’s spare lit­er­ary style, in which much of the drama roils just be­neath the sur­face, the film can feel stagy and ar­ti­fi­cial at times. Gyl­len­haal’s early scenes, in par­tic­u­lar, are some­what stiff and one-note, simmering some­where be­tween re­pressed, im­po­tent rage and vol­canic out­bursts, with lit­tle vari­a­tion. Mul­li­gan, on the other hand, is a low-key mar­vel, and owns this film from first to last. She’s great, yes, but even a tour de force can make for a lop­sided dy­namic when one’s on-screen coun­ter­parts can’t keep up.


Dano, it’s im­me­di­ately clear, is a nat­u­ral-born film­maker, with an eye for el­e­gant spare com­po­si­tions that re­frain from be­ing too showy; they rarely get in the way of the story he’s telling. The tale it­self is res­o­nant and ab­sorb­ing, though in a highly de­lib­er­ate way. It’s about the en­er­gies that were bub­bling up from the un­der­belly of the late 1950s, and how they be­gan to eat away at that clean cau­tious sur­face.

Dano han­dles all this ma­te­rial im­pres­sively, yet in the end there’s no deny­ing that there’s some­thing a lit­tle stud­ied about Wildlife.

It goes back to Richard Ford’s writ­ing, which is sug­ges­tive and metaphor­i­cal in an amor­phous way. (It’s like Ray­mond Carver with a de­lib­er­ately blurred lens.) Dano has al­tered some of the novel, and fo­cused the movie into the tale of how this fam­ily, com­ing apart at the seams, em­bod­ies the ways that the cul­ture had to change. In its way, it’s a fem­i­nist movie – and it’s also a com­ing-of-age tale. But those usu­ally end on a note of up­lift. Seen with Paul Dano’s gaze, com­ing of age is a highly ten­ta­tive de­liv­er­ance that only makes you won­der, with a touch of dread, what’s com­ing next.


This su­perb film puts its main adult char­ac­ters in the way of de­struc­tive forces of their own con­jur­ing. Wildlife is a do­mes­tic drama both sad and ter­ri­fy­ing. The en­tire cast does ex­cep­tional work, but the movie is an­chored by Mul­li­gan, who gives the best per­for­mance of any I’ve seen in film this year. The stiff sim­u­la­tion of de­ter­mined cheer with which Jeanette of­ten speaks has a ve­he­mence to it, par­tic­u­larly in the sibi­lants she pro­nounces. Her phys­i­cal bear­ing is also strik­ing: In this role, Mul­li­gan can say more by just tens­ing her neck than most ac­tors can with a lengthy, im­pas­sioned so­lil­o­quy. It is mes­meris­ing to watch the char­ac­ter strug­gle with the ques­tion of whether or not she is en­ti­tled to her rage be­fore she lets go and gives into it – and finds that do­ing so gives her no sat­is­fac­tion what­so­ever.

Dano’s di­rec­tion is metic­u­lous in ev­ery re­spect, which en­ables him to keep the char­ac­ters at a re­move that is both clear-eyed and com­pas­sion­ate. The sharp cin­e­matog­ra­phy by Diego Gar­cia is ideal for Dano’s pur­pose. The whole of the film is a po­tent col­lab­o­ra­tion in ev­ery re­spect, and a re­mark­able di­rec­to­rial de­but.


If you set any well-read, cul­tur­ally at­tuned per­son be­fore Paul Dano’s di­rec­to­rial de­but, they’d al­most cer­tainly guess that it was adapted from the work of A Great Amer­i­can Nov­el­ist. Those guys loved that swivel be­tween the US’s com­pla­cent 1950s and the loom­ing tur­bu­lence of the Viet­nam era.

The ac­tion works an in­ter­est­ing shuf­fle at the be­gin­ning of its se­cond act. Like so many Amer­i­can tales of that era, Wildlife fol­lows a man who can’t be manly in the way he de­sires. As­sisted by a fine Bill Camp as the town’s sleazy big­wig, the three ac­tors bounce un­set­tling, queasy en­er­gies off one an­other. Gyl­len­haal crum­ples be­neath the weight of so­cial ex­pec­ta­tions – some rea­son­able, oth­ers less so. Mul­li­gan is at her best when sulk­ing like a cat con­fronted with a rainy gar­den and, as he film pro­gresses, she gets more op­por­tu­ni­ties to wrin­kle her snout and droop her whiskers. But the stand­out per­for­mance may be that of Ed Ox­en­bould. What are they putting in teenagers’ ce­real th­ese days? You rarely see a bad teen per­for­mance and Ed’s – trag­i­cally baf­fled by the im­ma­tu­rity of the chrono­log­i­cally ma­ture – is so per­sua­sive you don’t know whether to hug him or hate him.


Carey Mul­li­gan and Jake Gyl­len­haal in Paul Dano’s Wildlife.

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