Paul Dano needs no introduction as an actor. In front of the camera the Golden Globe nominee has impressed with powerful performances in films like “There Will Be Blood,” “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Love & Mercy.” He brings a similar quiet intensity to his directorial debut, “Wildlife,” a dysfunctional family drama adapted from Richard Ford’s disquieting 1990 novel of the same name.
Set in 1960s Montana, the story focuses on the frustrated Jeanette Brinson (Carey Mulligan), alcoholic husband, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), and 14-year-old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould). When Jerry gets fired from his golf pro country club gig he’s forced to take a job fighting wildfires, a dangerous occupation that only pays $1 an hour. With her husband gone most of the time Jeanette wanders, beginning an affair with car dealership owner Warren Miller (Bill Camp). “You’re mother is a very passionate dancer,” says Miller. “Did you know that Joe?” With his parents occupied Joe becomes a de facto parent to them both, struggling to keep them together as their relationship hits the rocks.
Dano, who co-wrote “Wildlife” with actress and significant other Zoe Kazan, provides an elegant showcase for Mulligan’s soul-searching performance. The story of this quickly unraveling family is meted out slowly, deliberately low key, in an effort to allow the audience to get under the skin of the three main characters. Bonded by blood and marriage they struggle with unity in an era of change.
At the heart of it is Mulligan. As an Eisenhower Era wife and mother she projects an aura of calm but is actually a churning vessel of emotions; a person clamouring for more. The cracks in her Norman Rockwell façade are beginning to show. “Do you like Mr. Miller?” asks Joe. “Not very much,” she replies. “Things do happen around him though. He has that feel about him.” Mulligan breathes life into Jeanette, subtly and believably portraying a woman coming of age.
Oxenbould as Joe, the son forced to become both protector and confidant to his mother—“This is my desperation dress,” she says to him, modelling a revealing frock—is also very good, effectively showing us the dissolution of his parent’s bond through his eyes. His character doesn’t grow, he is an observer, a conduit for the audience’s sympathy.
Despite the title “Wildlife” doesn’t exactly kick up its heels. It’s a chilly tale with a few unnecessary detours—like Joe’s after school job and his friendship with a female classmate—but its story of survival hits home.