Paul Dano has made a career of portraying characters often thrust into situations out of their control. His highly empathetic presence elevates nearly every project he’s been involved with, including sublime turns in Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood, Love & Mercy and the tragically underappreciated Swiss Army Man. Along with co-writer Zoe Kazan – a formidable talent herself who descends from Hollywood royalty – Dano’s directorial debut Wildlife finds him bringing the same subtlety and level of craft behind the lens as he’s done for years in front.
Based on a novel by Richard Ford, the film is set at the turn of the 60s, where the Leave it to Beaver ethos is fully entrenched. We meet a nuclear family – Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a local golf pro who likes to bend the rules for himself, while Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) has given up a teaching career to follow her husband’s career ambitions and raise their adolescent son Joe (Ed Oxenbould).
We see the dynamic through Joe’s eyes, seeing him witness the near mythic patience that his mother exhibits while rolling with the family travails. We’re led to believe in a normalcy that’s driven by far more than superficial calm – the father playing catch with the son, the aproned mom making dinner for “her boys”. It’s all bucolic, and very much in keeping with expectations of the era.
Of course, there’s tumult to come, and it’s in the patient yet powerful way that Dano’s direction dishes out this growing tension that really allows his filmmaking talents to shine. Mulligan and Gyllenhaal are among their generations greatest talents, so it’s certainly helpful to have performers of this caliber biting into characters with such breadth. The film at any point could easily devolve into heavy handedness, but through precise attenuation we get the waves of quiet sorrow, explosive anger and genuine compassion doled out beautifully.
Credit is also deserved for character actor Bill Camp. He’s been around for decades, but whenever he’s on screen he provides a perfect addition to the scenes. It’s surely no coincidence that Camp also played in the most crucial scenes in Love & Mercy with Dano himself as Brian Wilson’s dad Murry.
Yet it’s the young Australian actor Oxenbould, with his open face and piercing eyes, that most provides a Dano-like character in the piece. The kid’s no pushover, yet he’s witnessing emotional changes outside his (and our) control. Like much of the film this could have been handled poorly, as some overweepy, overexplained nonsense, but save for a few indulgences and slight lingering on subtleties that could have been made a bit more oblique and still coherent, there’s plenty to admire about how it all comes together.
Wildlife may not be perfect, but its flaws come from ambition rather than compromise. It’s a sterling calling card for Dano and Kazan’s ability to collaborate, and it provides further evidence of the talents of both of these indie darlings. You get powerhouse turns by Gyllenhaal and Mulligan, lovely visuals, terrific production design and a story that may feel familiar but quickly sets itself apart.