Actor Paul Dano has made a small gem in Wildlife, his first film as a director. Precise, controlled and emotionally acute, this adaptation of Richard Ford’s short fourth novel, published in 1990, examines the disintegration of a marriage from the point of view of the couple’s 14-year-old son (he was two years older in the book) and does so with gentle precision and narrative economy. Unusually restrained and unemphatic by contemporary standards, the film possesses an integrity and economy of means that earns respect, even if it will probably feel old-fashioned to contemporary adolescents in the same age bracket as the protagonist. Theatrical prospects look quite limited despite the marquee names of Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal, both in good form as the parents.
The drama is set in Great Falls, Montana, in 1960 against the backdrop of an enormous forest fire raging in the mountains 40 miles away, the smoke from which is beginning to settle down on the town. Unemployed men sign up for a dollar an hour to be trucked off and help fight the blaze, even if there’s not a whole lot that can be done to thwart it.
An appealingly understated and controlled directorial bow.
Jerry Brinson (Gyllenhaal) looks to be doing a fair amount of brooding even before he’s fired from his job as a golf pro at the local course. Although his bosses soon realize they’ve made a mistake and invite him back, Jerry has his pride and takes to moping around the house to the consternation of his wife Jeanette (Mulligan), who at the outset tries to put on a good front as an agreeable mid-century housewife but is soon unnerved by her husband’s newfound sense of entropy.
While both parents make desultory efforts to look for work, son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) signs on as an apprentice to a local portrait photographer, a part-time job he takes to. There’s something of an affinity between this line of work and the visual style Dano and cinematographer Diego Garcia have worked out, one that doesn’t eschew camera moves when called for but certainly favors simple, clean, forthright compositions that in the long run endow the film with a sense of emotional groundedness.
This is compounded by the sensationally fine work by the young Australian actor Oxenbould in the critical role of Joe. Rather nerdy-looking at first glance, he has an observational openness that is most ingratiating, although the actor does nothing to cozy up to the viewer. More than anyone, he carries the film.
The stylistic stability persists even as the emotional bonds within the family become fraught and fractured. Out of frustration and perhaps other emotional turmoil he can’t articulate, Jerry hops on a truck with destitute men to go fight the wildfires, leaving Jeanette and Joe on their own and without a clue when or even if Jerry might return.
“What kind of man leaves his wife and child in such a lonely place?,” Jeanette wonders, and almost at once she begins to look unhealthily gaunt and frazzled. She does find work, including teaching an old wealthy man, Warren Miller (Bill Camp), how to swim, but she begins speaking about her emotional problems and life complaints in a way that 14-year-olds, even this comparatively mature one, are not equipped to hear. All her life choices have now come back to haunt her and take her to the brink, which ultimately lead her to a misguided involvement with the lecherous Miller that she scarcely chooses to conceal from her appalled son.
Mulligan’s precise portrait of Jeanette’s desperation and deterioration is a disturbing thing to behold, both in and of itself and for its inevitably devastating effect on Joe. Jerry does return at a certain point, forcing decisive decisions that put the kid through the emotional wringer once again.
The story is saved from both outright melodrama and the explicitly clinical by the stylistic sense of reserve of both the writing (Dano penned the script with Zoe Kazan) and direction, which is marked by its fair-minded openness and clarity. The script dares to go deep and confront what is going on in the hearts and minds of all three family members, but it does so articulately and without hysteria.
The adults here do plenty of damage, both to their son and themselves, but the sense of human charity, if it may be called that in this context, lifts the drama out of the emotional mess the characters make and creates a positive view of the future — albeit without simplistically manufactured false hope.
Except for four days in Montana, the film was otherwise filmed in Oklahoma. In a bit of historical cinematic nitpicking, the double-bill shown to be playing at the downtown Great Falls movie theater, North to Alaska and Butterfield 8, could not have been possible in the summer or fall of 1960, as both films opened in November of that year.
Production companies: Sight Unseen, Ninestories
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould, Bill Camp, Jake Gyllenhaal
Director: Paul Dano
Screenwriters: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, based on the novel by Richard Ford
Producers: Alex Saks, Paul Dano, Oren Moverman, Ann Ruark, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riva Marker
Executive producers: Zoe Kazan, Ted Deiker, Eddie Vaisman
Director of photography: Diego Garcia
Production designer: Akin McKenzie
Costume designer: Amanda Ford
Editor: Matthew Hannam, Louise Ford
Music: David Lang
Casting: Laura Rosenthal, Jodi Angstreich
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Dramatic Competition)