Based on the novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ford, directed by actor Paul Dano (the Prisoners and 12 Years A Slave alum making his directorial debut) and co-written with his partner, actress Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick), Wildlife – without even taking into account that Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal are starring – is in no short supply of proven talent. Though, as plentiful stacked this film is with reliable performers, there’s an understated approach to telling this story that has the potential to drive viewers away who aren’t prepared to lend their patience.
Intended more so for the arthouse crowd as opposed to general audiences who may be lured due to Mulligan and Gyllenhaal’s presence, Wildlife is a character study drama that we’ve seen before, though there’s a distinct coldness to proceedings here that lend the story its own personality. Set in the quiet suburban streets of Montana in the 1960’s, the film details the deteriorating marriage between Jeanette (Mulligan) and Jerry (Gyllenhaal), and their 14-year-old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) who is caught in the middle.
Young enough to still have dreams of career fulfilment but appropriately jaded with the fact that advancement hasn’t happened, we meet Jerry and Jeanette just as he loses his job at a fancy country club. Forcing the dissatisfied Jerry to look for unwanted work, which in turn allows Jeanette an opportunity for herself to get back into the working field (much to his annoyance), he ultimately answers the call of his own curiosity and up and leaves to assist fighting wildfires, leaving Jeanette and Joe to fend for themselves.
Falling to pieces as she assesses both her own marriage and self-worth, Jeanette makes nice with a local businessman, Warren Miller (Bill Camp), a relatively wealthy car dealership owner, which jumpstarts Joe’s own fears of whether or not his father will return, and if he does, what home life will it be to. Whilst Jerry’s aesthetic initially makes Jeanette’s choice to romance the physically unappealing Warren a bizarre choice to swallow, her desperation and his pleasant demeanour make for an obvious magnetism. And though Jeanette has oft-frustrating dialogue and behaviour that easily paints her as the film’s “villain”, Jerry’s own at-times-pathetic nature means her actions are understandable.
Of Mulligan and Gyllenhaal it’s she who gets the showier role due in large part to her considerable screen-time. She’s a feisty performer, and she has some great moments, but at times her delivery verges on overt-theatricality which doesn’t always mesh with the more downtrodden nature of the film. As established as both Mulligan and Gyllenhaal are though, it’s Oxenbould who emerges as Wildlife‘s true star; the young Australian talent lending heart and soul to his performance that feels void in almost all other aspects of the film.
An assured debut without question, Wildlife is a wonderful showcase for its performers and could very well be a contender during the upcoming award season. It isn’t a fast-paced or terribly exciting feature, and more empathy across the board could’ve helped perhaps make this a more connection-friendly movie to audiences, but Dano has very clearly made the movie he wanted to make, and those who appreciate high-brow cinema are likely to respond accordingly to this clinical feature.
A boy witnesses his parents’ marriage falling apart after his mother finds another man.
Wildlife (To Be Classified) is screening as part of the Brisbane International Film Festival, running from 11th – 21st October 2018. The film is expected to earn a national release later in the year.