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Adapting a book must feel like a safe space for actors who want to try their hand at writing and directing. You’re given a source material that can act as a foundation, something that must not feel so daunting as filming an original, unproven script. Nonetheless, we’ve seen it go wrong before. For his foray into filmmaking, James Franco took on monolithic figures of American literature and the end results were stale vanity projects from a guy who doesn’t realise there are other authors than the ones that appear on Times 100 lists (Franco should never be forgiven for his take on the mentally challenged Benji in his The Sound & The Fury).
Paul Dano, on the other hand, was much savvier about it. Instead of being overwhelmed by downright impenetrable works by literary greats, he was inspired by a near thirty-year-old, moderately well-received book that not many people read and even less remembered. Richard Ford’s Wildlife tells the story of marriage breaking at the seams and the child caught in the crosshairs. In interviews, Dano said the content of the story had a personal resonance for him, and that stricken chord imbues the film with a deep sense of care. There’s more than just a hint of Michael Caton-Jones’ This Boys Life about the proceedings—Incidentally Ford’s novel was published just one year after Tobias Wolfe’s famous memoir—but Dano adds his own flavour as he proves himself an already fully realised filmmaker. In truth, this is one of the strongest debuts of 2018.
Wildlife follows the Brinsons, a lower middle-class family of three living in the rural town of Great Falls, Montana. It’s 1960 and Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal) works at the golf club as the local pro to provide for his long-suffering house wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and his teenage son John (Ed Oxenbould). The couple’s relationship begins to strain when Jerry is loses his job. His bruised ego won’t allow him to take the position when he’s offered it once more, after which he struggles to find employment. When Jerry eventually leaves home to battle the forest fires that rage just on the outskirts of town, Jeanette feels abandoned and turns her attention away from her son and into the arms of what she sees as her only chance for escape: a wealthier older man (Bill Camp).
In terms of available acting talent to appear in your directorial debut, it’s hard to think of a more illustrious pairing than Gyllenhaal and Mulligan. Gyllenhaal, whose been on some run of performances for close to a decade now, shows that same sense of vulnerable intensity he’s made a career out of. He brings a pitiful fury to a man whose fragile masculinity threatens to dismantle a creaking household. Mulligan has the trickier role and the performance does suffer somewhat from Jeannette’s whiplash inducing 180 turn from efficacious, endearing matriarchal figure to resent-fuelled, callous promiscuity. It’s not so much a subtle arc as it is two expertly played, distinct characters but Mulligan does nonetheless play them both expertly.
It’s young Ed Oxenbould that does most of the heavy lifting however. With both his parents missing in action, one literally and one figuratively, John is forced to try in vain to cultivate some modicum of a healthy home life. As his mother sinks deeper into both a paralysing depression and a sordid affair, Oxenbould carries the film on his shoulders, his wide eyed, ever increasingly desperation leaves its mark on the viewer as the teenage John goes from boy to man of an empty house.
Watching his mother give into reckless abandon with John the collateral damage is a well-crafted, excruciating experience. Dano always had a squirmy sentimentality to his acting roles and it might be the best way to describe his directing too. The negligence has a right-in-your-gut, visceral honesty that’s tough to sit through but undeniably affecting. Bill Camp is especially, superbly slimly as the hotshot, car dealership-owning divorcee that preys on Jeanette. In one particularly unbearable dinner sequence, Camp sucks on a cigar like it’s John’s young life he’s drawing from while ogling a drunken Jeanette. The tragic irony is that Camp’s Miller is the only one who registers the boy’s turmoil.
Although he’s a first-time director, Dano isn’t afraid to move the camera. Sometimes he shoots like he’s making a horror. An agonizing slow pan through a window is used to devastating effect in order to reveal a betrayal long after our protagonist has reacted to it. Rural Montana is also made into something of sinister beauty by cinematographer Diego García. The muted blues and greys suffocate our main trio, as if the wide open landscape of the American mid-west still can’t offer the escape they crave. The only respite in colour comes in the titular wildfire which like Jeanette’s repressed ambitions or Jerry’s unchecked insecurities always rages in the background, somewhere off in the distance. One standout, emotionally charged-scene sees John confront the blaze head on and the heat from the image radiates from the screen.
Dano, it should be said, isn’t out to condemn. Along with co-screenwriter Zoe Kazan, the former Little Miss Sunshine star takes a humane look at an oft-explored period known for middle age malaise and does something fresh with it. Jeanette’s behaviour isn’t really a “fall from grace” as some have seen it. Dano certainly doesn’t condone her neglect of John but does set out to understand it. Jeanette’s frustrations come from living In a time when her worth was defined by the man she married and not by the person she aspired to be. In her eyes, upward mobility could only ever be found in the arms of another.
Wildlife is a deft, devasting film, one brimming with minor moments of melancholia. We’ve seen plenty of works that expose the shallow nature of suburban project before but Dano doesn’t fall into the usual trappings because he allows character to trump lazy symbolism and heavy-handed social commentary. In the final shots, our teenage lead tries to create an image of a family reconnected, asking his parents to enjoy a past happy memory in order to conceive it. John knows that it’s just for a photo, and the saddest part is, that’s enough for him.