For his directorial debut, actor Paul Dano has chosen a period drama of a dysfunctional family, the first in a series of films he wants to make on the subject. Based on a novel by Richard Frost and adapted by Dano and his partner Zoe Kazan, Wildlife is the story of a married couple and their teenage son who move to Montana to start a new life and what happens following the loss of a job. It’s thoroughly absorbing.
Set in the early sixties before the onslaught of a British invasion, when the cultural landscape still looked and felt like the fifties, director Dano immediately creates an authentic feel of the period without indulging in the more obvious cinematic timestamps. There are no scenes establishing radio hits. It’s done with a passing glance at the metallic design of the kitchen table, the slightly blurred look of the pink car with the wings parked off in the distance in a neighbor’s drive, the posters in the window of the supermarket where pork chops are fifty-nine cents a pound and peanut butter is fifty-five cents a jar, and it’s done with the small, main street movie house where John Wayne’s North to Alaska is playing.
Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal), his wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and his son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) have recently moved from Idaho to Great Falls, Montana. Though qualified to be a teacher, Jeanette is a stay-at-home mom, and seemingly happy to be so. Joe is settling in at his new high school, while Jerry has secured a job at a nearby country club. They’re the typical nuclear family unit with mom in the kitchen cleaning up, dad listening to sports on the radio while reading the paper, and Joe doing his homework. Then something happens.
Jerry is fired from his job. The reason given, or at least the reason Jerry tells his family is that his boss told him he was too friendly with the customers. All he is given at his departure is his pay for two weeks. Eighty-eight dollars. Curiously, there’s neither a hint of a scandal nor a sign that anything odd occurred. “You must’ve done something he didn’t like,” says mom at the dinner table, trying to understand what happened, adding that she’s not angry. “Not with you, anyway.”
But later, when the board at the club reverse their decision and call to offer Jerry his job back, the man ignores it. “I won’t work for people like that,” he tells his son, “And tell your mother if they call again, I’m not interested.”
It’s difficult to fully understand why Jerry refuses the offer, particularly at a time when the family needs the money the most. “Maybe his pride got hurt,” Jeannette explains to young Joe. Instead, after a period of uncertainty, Jerry volunteers to work for a dollar an hour fighting a looming forest fire in the mountains on the outskirts of town, one that threatens to spread if not kept under control.
The potential danger of what could happen to both her husband and to the family while Jerry’s away finally cracks Jeanette’s veneer of marital contentment. She’s remained upbeat with a positive attitude, even seeing Jerry’s dismissal from the country club as an opportunity for finding something better, but becoming a firefighter and having to leave home for what could be months, especially with little income in the account, is now too much for her. She’s even resentful. To help out, young Joe gets an after-school job at a photographer’s studio while Jeanette teaches swim at the YMCA. And that’s where she meets the wealthy owner of a car dealership, Mr. Miller (Bill Camp), an event that will change the dynamics of that nuclear family while revealing previously unknown traits in Jeanette, some of which may be even she was unaware.
What makes all of these events engrossing in the telling is how they’re told. Everything is seen from the boy’s point-of-view; the emotions are filtered through the way Joe tries to understand and interpret things. The book has the boy narrating events, but there’s no narration in the film. It’s all done with questioning glances and the need for a teenager to try and makes sense of what is happening and why it looks as though the marriage of his parents is evaporating before him.
When his father is met by his boss and fired while on the green, we neither see nor hear the event. The camera focuses on Joe and slowly moves in to a closeup of the boy as he slowly realizes that something might be wrong with dad. When his parents argue at night, Joe is in bed, listening to the muffled sounds of rising voices heard through the bedroom wall. And when Jerry tells his wife that he’s volunteered to fight a fire, meaning he’ll not only be putting himself in danger but he’ll be away from home for a lengthy period, the conversation has already occurred by the time the boy arrives home from school. Joe, and we, learn of the conversation after it’s done. Best of all is when the boy unexpectedly arrives home after school when his mother thought he would be at his part-time job. Joe walks in on Mr. Miller and Jeanette talking in the living room. Through the boy’s eyes it looks innocent enough, but later when he asks of his mom what was Mr. Miller doing here, she replies dismissively, “What does it matter?”
While both Gyllenhaal’s Jerry and Oxenbould’s young Joe convince – particularly young Oxenbould who finally makes up for that annoying persona he created two years ago as the rapper with the video camera in M.Night Shyamalan’s The Visit – Wildlife is Carey Mulligan’s film. This is a potentially award-winning performance of depth and maturity; a portrait of a woman whose true survivalist nature finally emerges once she feels the pressure. Her affair with the wealthy car dealership owner has nothing to do with the loneliness felt while a husband is away, nor is there love or affection felt for the older man. From her point-of-view, she’s doing what feels logical. She’s laying the groundwork for her own future security.
Dano’s assurance as a first time director is evident in scene after scene. Throughout the film, there are several references to what will happen once the snow arrives. For the town, it means the fire in the mountains will finally end. For Joe, it means his father will return. There’s a scene where Joe sits at a bus stop waiting to go to school. As the bus pulls up, the snow begins. Cinematographer Diego Garcia shoots the moment with a view from the other side of the road. The large vehicle blocks our perspective of the stop, and though we assume people may be getting off, instinctively we believe that Joe will not be getting on. Yet, the bus pulls away and there’s no one at the stop. Maybe our instinct was wrong. Maybe Joe really did get on that bus. Then the camera slowly pans aside to show more of the sidewalk. Still, there’s no sign of Joe walking back home in the falling snow. Then the camera pans some more, now revealing not only the sidewalk but the long road itself, and there’s Joe, already way off in the distance. He’s not walking home, he’s running. So much is told in a single scene with no dialog and the economy of movement, and it’s all achieved in one, slow shot.
Having never heard of Richard Ford’s novel, maybe now would be a good time to acquire a copy. It’s not so much the need to read a new book by an unfamiliar author, particularly when literary reviews were less than enthusiastic. It’s to compare the difference and to see how effectively Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan have adapted the work. Like Dano’s ability to direct, I’m suspecting it’s first class.
MPAA rating: PG-13 Length: 104 Minutes