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.
NEW YORK TIMES
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.