From musician Boots Riley’s Sorry To Bother You and comedian Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade to actors Rupert Everett and Jonah Hill with The Happy Prince and Mid90s respectively, more entertainers than ever are testing the waters of the complex but artistic field of film direction. Now actor Paul Dano’s first feature film comes to theaters in the form of Wildlife, and he handles the 1960s family drama with an incredible restraint that begets incredible, understated performances from his ensemble, and crafts one of the most compelling narratives of the year.
When a father takes a job fighting wildfires that separates him from his family, it’s up to his son and wife to fend for themselves in 1960s Montana.
When it comes to actors in Hollywood, it can be argued that no one’s due for more recognition than Paul Dano. Since bursting onto the scene as an actor in 2006 in the ensemble independent comedy Little Miss Sunshine, he’s gone on to gain a reputation as a character actor on the rise in Hollywood with supporting roles in many Oscar contenders over the years, including There Will Be Blood, 12 Years A Slave, Prisoners, and even a co-lead performance as young Brian Wilson in the 2015 biopic Love & Mercy.
With an impressive filmography of roles under his belt, Dano has elected to make the transition to work behind the camera in crafting a solid directorial debut in Wildlife, a film adaptation of the novel by Richard Ford. Despite possessing elements common in most first features, Wildlife sets itself apart with an authentic portrayal and criticism of the time period in which it’s set, an isolated and focused narrative, on top of captivating performances from its small, but stellar ensemble.
Wildlife takes place in 1960s Montana, where 14-year-old Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould) lives with his golf pro father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) and homemaker mother Jeannette (Carey Mulligan) in a nuclear family. To Joe, he and his parents are living a happy life in suburbia, until one day when Jerry suddenly loses his job for ‘overstepping his boundaries with the customers’, according to his boss. Jerry is soon offered his job back, but declines the offer out of hubris (“I don’t work for people like that,” in his words). His pride even keeps him from looking for another job; when Jeannette suggests he take a job bagging groceries, he responds by saying he doesn’t do a teenager’s job.
Eventually, he takes a dangerous job fighting the nearby burning wildfires at a measly dollar an hour that separates himself from Joe and Jeannette, leaving the two of them to fend for themselves and provide for the family. While the two are able to make ends meet financially with Joe getting a part-time job as a photographer’s assistant, and Jeannette obtaining work as a swimming instructor, their lifestyles are hindered in their own ways: Joe falls behind on his schoolwork, his social life is compromised as he is forced to quit his school’s football team, and he is given no time to build his relationship with a girl at school, while Jeannette’s resolve as the happy homemaker slowly but surely cracks under her financial, societal and personal pressures.
The audience begins to feel and take notice of those pressures themselves as the film progresses, in part thanks to Dano’s direction as a storyteller. Wildlife has all the makings of a formulaic and melodramatic film, but its source material is adapted in a minimalistic and understated manner that succeeds in packing an emotional punch with the slightest elements. Dano even elects to show some of the most dramatic moments off-screen: in an early scene on the golf course he tends, Jerry is led off-screen by his boss as the camera moves into a tight shot of Joe looking on in concern over the security of his father’s job. Another example comes when Joe is given a pop quiz in one of his classes, and has to tell the teacher he couldn’t finish his homework the night before. The long look he gives a classmate conveys all the the embarrassment and insecurities Joe feels about failing to excel.
Co-written by Dano and his wife, Zoe Kazan, the script of Wildlife also succeeds in turning the trope of the 50s housewife on its head through Jeannette’s progression and psychology. Jeannette is a woman who wants to be successful in a marriage that isolates her into a position where her ambitions are limited. In an early scene, her persistence to respond to a notice in person at the YMCA is met with constant rejection; it isn’t until she asks if a position is available for a man that she is finally given her job.
Meanwhile, Jeannette’s progression becomes as intriguing as it is unsettling; she grows close with an older student named Warren Miller (Bill Camp), tries to recapture her youth by wearing clothes she wore when she was younger, starts smoking and even encourages Joe to skip school, in addition to questioning Jerry’s sanity and fidelity. And Carey Mulligan conveys Jeannette’s downward spiral in compelling fashion through a tremendous lead performance: just one expression on her face conveys Jeannette’s sadness, frustration and anxiety over Jerry leaving her alone in a world full of restrictions. Meanwhile, she grows more demanding of Joe with subtle, yet building tenacity as she struggles to maintain the composure demanded by her neighborhood.
The strong performances are consistent in the rest of the ensemble; Jake Gyllenhaal portrays Jerry as a man full of enough pride to be a family breadwinner, that he grows desperate and frustrated when Joe and Jeannette innocently challenge his position. Upon leaving to fight the wildfire, he smiles upon introducing himself to a man off-screen, but the camera lingers on his face long enough for Gyllenhaal to convey immediate regret over his decision and wonder over how he’ll power through it. Meanwhile, Ed Oxenbould delivers in what should be his breakout role; Joe is a pre-teen expected to come of age earlier than he expected, and expresses his childlike optimism over the security of his family with great restraint that carries over into a discomfort of his mother as he witnesses her psychological descent first-hand.
All this being said, it’s easy to tell that Wildlife is Dano’s first feature: the cinematography makes good use of shadows over Joe’s face and the hallways of his house to convey the darkness of humanity he discovers, but for the most part, stays static, only moving in and panning on the most dramatic turns. It’s also worth noting that the film doesn’t have a lot of thematic depth, but it ultimately doesn’t need to. Wildlife is a bleak, but picturesque drama about a suburban family turned dysfunctional, and the story is told with phenomenal performances from everyone involved, deliberately slow pacing, gorgeous production and costume design, strong character psychology, beautiful restraint, and reliance on visual storytelling from director Paul Dano.
In a year where more entertainers than ever have branched out into film directing, his debut feature Wildlife is up there with the best of this year’s debuts, and one of the best films of the year.