James Cole Clay // Film Critic
It’s appropriate that Paul Dano’s directorial debut, WILDLIFE, is set in the spacious vistas of Montana. Set in the early 1960s, Dano’s film is a deeply emotional work that frames a portrait of a family searching for their identity. The family – portrayed by Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ed Oxenbould – struggles with the fact that even though they are blood that’s not enough to find the satisfaction to carry them through their daily lives.
The film is told through the perspective of 14-year-old Joe (Oxenbould), who – after moving several times because of his loving, yet inept father, Jerry (Gyllenhaal) – realizes he doesn’t have a place in this world. Joe isn’t too social at school and football isn’t working out, but a quiet job working as a photography assistant puts some much needed extra dollars towards filling the refrigerator. All seems to be well, until the love that once kept them together starts to tear at the seams. When Jerry loses his job at the golf course, something snaps in Joe’s mother, Jeanette (Mulligan), and the entire family goes through an existential crisis.
Dano, who is no stranger to sparring with great actors (such as Daniel-Day Lewis), coaches his cast through a rough-acting terrain of finding space for each character to feel justified in the their feelings towards their sad situation. Dano doesn’t play the blame game and no fingers are pointed, only feelings are brought to the surface. The film stays grounded through gentle shot compositions that allow us to think and see how this seemingly charmed life starts to lose its shine.
Gyllenhaal, who’s absent for a good chunk of the second act, is a lovable buffoon who starts to mentally check out from loving his wife. Gyllenhaal’s character has an urge to find a new path for himself as he says to Joe, “I got this hum inside my head. I need to do something about it,” as he abruptly takes a low-wage gig fighting off deadly wildfires. It feels important to Dano as a storyteller that he shows Jerry as a loving father who has failed to provide stability for his son.
Given that money troubles are a huge reason why married couples split, waiting in the wings is a wealthy older businessman Warren Miller (Bill Camp). He smells blood in the water and is ready to try and take Jeannette to bed, even if the circumstances are a bit gross and awkward. Mulligan is rarely judged for her infidelity in this film. But to Dano and screenwriter Zoe Kazan’s credit, they provide Jeanette with agency and understanding, as she’s just looking out for what’s the best next step for her life.
Mulligan could easily make her way into the awards conversation for WILDLIFE, given the film is poised to showcase her bubbly scenes that are on the verge of being hilarious and manic. There’s something to be said for a filmmaker who can balance out three excellent performances and still leave room for Oxenbould to bring in some raw emotions as his character sees his mother and father move on from the family life he has always known.
WILDLIFE’s small scope is modest in presentation, yet brilliant in its execution. The setting brings a life to Montana that has yet to be captured in modern filmmaking. Even with the dissolution of love at the forefront, this film finds love, humor, and several jaw-dropping moments that make this one of the strongest dramas this year. It’s as if Dano is celebrating the past, while satisfied with starting a new chapter.
WILDLIFE premiered on Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018. The Toronto International Film Festival will have encore screenings on 9/10, 9/12 and 9/15. Visit tiff.net for more details on the showtimes. WILDLIFE will release on Oct. 19, 2018 through IFC Films.