At the ripe old age of 31, Paul Dano decided to direct. And the indie star didn’t make things easy for himself, either: he took on a book by Richard Ford, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist whose spare, haunting prose has been compared to that of Raymond Caver.
Wildlife is the tale of a 1960s nuclear family — mom, dad, teenage son — whose lives blow up like an atomic bomb. We see things through the eyes of young Joe (Ed Oxenbould, an actor with a low-key presence that’s downright Dano-esque): the sensitive teen watches aghast as first his father, Jerry (Gyllenhaal), freshly fired from a menial job at a golf course, heads off to fight a forest fire in an attempt to reassert his masculinity, then as his mother, Jeanette (Mulligan), begins to hit the bottle, embarking on a startling downwards spiral. Jerry’s off fighting flames, but the real inferno is sparking to life in the family home.
Set in the suburbs of Great Falls, Montana, a town with a stultifying smallness that belies its name, it’s a period mood-piece that charts its characters’ emotional decline with an unblinking stare. A tough directorial debut, then, but one that Dano pulls off with impressive élan.
The mood of the thing is what will haunt you.
Some films about a crumbling marriage pile on the histrionics, showing the growing rift through confrontation. Instead, Wildlife does it through what isn’t said, the off moments, the quiet uneasiness that hangs over a dinner table.
Gyllenhaal is excellent as the hangdog breadwinner, a man with obvious decency but whose pride prevents him from accepting his job back when he’s offered it. But the film belongs to Mulligan, who delivers a complex, fiery performance that could be her best to date. Initially Jeanette is prim and buttoned-up, the kind of model housewife you’d see depicted on the side of a cereal box. But as her husband begins to lose his way, she’s hit by her own existential crisis, suffocating and grabbing out in unlikely directions for help. It all culminates in a visit to the home of a gargoylian local businessman (Bill Camp), taking her son along for what is surely the weirdest date to be portrayed on screen in 2018.
That’s probably the film’s most memorable scene. But the mood of the thing is what will haunt you: Dano and his partner and fellow actor Zoe Kazan (with whom he wrote the script) have crafted a richly detailed, melancholy, meditative drama that makes you fall in love with the three lead characters, then breaks your heart as their sorry saga unfolds. It’s a small story, but the emotions it kicks up don’t come much bigger.