Paul Dano the actor has always been a puzzle to me. While many love his body of work I’ve often felt he requires a very specific type of role. Without it he can seem overwhelmed by the material or lack the range to pull it off. But if the role is just right he can knock your socks off. After seeing his first work behind the camera I can honestly say I have no such reservations about Paul Dano the director.
His new movie “Wildlife” is a mesmerizing bit of filmmaking, so deeply sincere and profoundly human at every turn. What grabbed me early on was how devoted Dano is to his characters – getting them right and never allowing us a moment to doubt their authenticity. His entire focus is on them and the agonizing journeys each of them take. We the audience are simply along for the ride, in the hands of a first-time director telling his story like a seasoned pro.
Set in 1960, Carey Mulligan (shamefully overlooked this awards season) and Jake Gyllenhaal play Jeanette and Jerry Brinson. They’re a working-class couple who recently moved to Great Falls, Montana with their bright 14 year-old son Joe (newcomer Ed Oxenbould). Jerry is employed as a greenskeeper at a local country club while Jeanette works to meet the era’s image of a stay-at-home mom. It’s a seemingly idyllic domestic portrait but it doesn’t take long for the cracks to show.
After losing his job Jerry sinks into a mire of depression. He’s battered by self-induced feelings of failure and his ‘man of the house’ pride. It leads him to make a rash decision that leaves Jeanette and Joe to run things until he returns. A bitter Jeanette quickly begins to unravel. Maybe she wishes she could take off like Jerry. Perhaps the weight of being the model housewife and mother has taken its toll. She begins to come apart and her son can only watch.
All of this is told from the perspective of Joe, our moral center for the duration. Through quiet observations he is yanked out of what Dano has called the “Eden of childhood”. His idealized images of his parents are shattered and replaced with the realization that they are real, flawed people. It’s pretty crushing and the slow evolution of Joe’s expressions speaks volumes. Dano doesn’t direct Oxenbould to go big. In fact rarely does the young actor express anything outwardly. It’s through his eyes that we sense his internal struggle to understand what’s happening to his family.
The script was co-written by Dano and his partner Zoe Kazan and is based on a 1990 novel by Richard Ford which Dano instantly fell in love with. The two haggled a bit before landing on where they wanted the story to go. For them it was essential that young Joe be our lens while also evoking some level of empathy for Jean and Jerry . At times I struggled with sympathy for the parents but that’s part of what I love about this film. Dano and Kazan allow plenty of room for us to wrestle with how we feel about these characters and I can see them being read in a myriad of ways.
The performances are a critical part of this. From the outset Dano reveals a deep trust in his actors allowing them plenty of room to flesh out their characters. So many shots are framed with this in mind. The camera will sit back, often from Joe’s point of view, and watch Gyllenhaal and most notably Mulligan take charge of the scene. As I’ve said before, there is something intoxicating about watching great actors act. Here Gyllenhaal is somber and restrained, exactly what the role needs. Mulligan steals the show with a performance full of layers and emotional conflict. It could be her best work to date.
“Wildlife” is an impressive first feature from Paul Dano the director. He shows off some good filmmaking impulses and there is a delicate rhythm to his storytelling that I wasn’t expecting. “Wildlife” has such a strong emotional core and even as a fiery metaphor burns on the horizon (I’ll let you discover it for yourselves) the film never loses its heart. It’s tragic and heartbreaking yet through a small sense of hope Dano gives us something to cling to. And as I think on his movie I appreciate that more and more.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS