Director: Paul Dano
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould
Length: 1hr 45 mins
Paul Dano’s directorial debut about the inward collapse of a Montana family has moments of brilliance, but they are frustratingly inconsistent. Dano is already known as an actor, significantly for his roles as both Paul and Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood. Perhaps it is unsurprising that his first film has an unfinished feel.
The premise is this: Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) loses his job and with his masculinity damaged, refuses other work in order to fight a fire in the Montana mountains, leaving his wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) behind. The film however, does not focus so much on Jerry’s time fighting the fire- more on the effect his absence has on his family. Left in the family home and quickly running out of money, his lonely and volatile wife Jeanette begins to fall apart, with her fourteen year old son desperately trying to hold everything together. The timing of the film’s release is perhaps unlucky. With the California wildfires still burning and the death toll rising, Dano’s chosen subject matter is made more urgent. To some viewers the idea making a drama out of an event like this may be troubling.
In parts, Dano manages to skilfully present events through the child’s perspective, often having Oxenbould static and central whilst his parents move in and out of shot. Oxenbould’s acting is intelligent and his character is believable. We see him as a boy just reaching the age when he is beginning to lose a child’s complete trust for their parents. One scene in particular shows emotional subtlety both from director and actor: father and son sit in a dark car park after he loses his job and perfectly recognises the discomfort of seeing a parent in pain. In fact it is the awkward dynamic between child and parent that links all Wildlife’s strongest parts. Mulligan and Oxenbould both give standout performances but are sometimes let down by the predictable shape of the film.
Some moments also feel wasted. A friendship Joe strikes up with a girl on the bus seems interesting but is never given more time to develop. We are left knowing very little more about Joe and overall it seems a strand of narrative that never meets its potential.
Visually, however, Wildlife does excel. The flat plain and surrounding mountains of Montana are sublime, whilst the pale exposing light lends an eerie quality to otherwise unsurprising scenes. Dano’s careful use of sound is also impressive. Often the sounds of one scene play over the visual of another – showing how the family is connected despite their attempts to separate themselves from their home and from each other. Another scene where Dano’s soundscape is crucial occurs when Joe is taken to see the fire. With the camera close up on him we hear the rising sound of the blaze, an idea which is effective in combination with Oxenbould’s reaction to what he sees.
Overall Wildlife shows promising directorial talent on the part of Dano, as well as excellent acting and cinematography. However, the awkward time of its release coupled with the fact many moments lack much-needed originality, hold the film back from its potential.