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
I’ve been hearing a lot of great things about this film but it never came to my local multiplex. If it did, I never got see it as it’s usual that most of these releases get played in a week and then…. *poof* it’s gone.
Oh that stinks. I caught one of its last showings here and I am SO glad I did. This film blew me away and it has stuck with me since. Are you a fan of Dano? He is certainly a director to watch.
I do like Paul Dano. I’m interested in what he does as a director.
I’m pretty mixed on his acting but can’t wait to hear your thoughts on his directing. Clearly he was taking notes from all the great directors he has worked with.
Sounds fantastic dude, thanks for such an exciting review. First, Jonah Hill surprised me with his touching mid90s. Now it seems Paul Dano has stepped up too. Very interesting developments. I’ve marked this as a must-see.
Must-see for sure. Dano has such a keen handling of this material. It’s tricky because it could have easily slipped into some melodramatic mush. But he has such a delicate approach and his uses of perspective is really impressive. Does it happen to be showing anywhere near you?
Not as of yet, but hoping it will. Positive word of mouth and critical reviews will help that I’m sure. Unfortunately what my area lacks is a nice indie/arthouse theater, the kind of place movies like these do better business at. We’ll see!
I hope it does come your way. Thankfully we do have a theater that gets a good number of indies year round. But being in a smaller market even it misses several of them.
Have you seen the teaser poster for the new Sonic the Hedgehog movie?
I want to stand up and applaud this review. Obviously from my near constant bitching on Twitter about this getting overlooked, I agree with everything you wrote. I am one of those people who loves Dano in everything and I’m glad I can include behind the camera on that. Carey Mulligan is this year’s Rebecca Hall. Giving a magnificent performance and getting zero credit for it.
Thanks so much! I adore this picture. Overlooking Mulligan for an acting awards seems criminal. She’s such a great actress and often tackles complex women characters. To say this is her best work is a mammoth compliment.
Awesome review, Keith. How cool that Paul Dano is behind the lens this time. I have a lot of respect for his acting.
Thank you Cindy! As I mentioned I have often struggled with his acting. But he really knocked my socks off with his teacher debut! And it’s more than just a lucky first outing. There is a lot to his technique and delicacy in the handling of his characters. Extremely impressed!
Oh it’s soooo good! Are you a Dano fan?
I’d never heard of him before I saw your article.
Oh okay. He’s had a string of interesting movies as an actor. This is his first directing try and he really nails it.