Paul Dano explodes out of the gate with his directorial debut. ‘Wildlife’ immediately establishes him as an independent director to be contended with. Written in collaboration with Zoe Kazan and based on a novel by Richard Ford, this period family drama is as emotionally raw and intellectually enriching as many of the roles Dano has brought to life in other fine films.
Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Jean (Carey Mulligan) are the parents of an adolescent son, Joe (Ed Oxenbould). Jerry’s a local golf pro who recently moved his family to Montana. He spends his days swinging clubs and scraping the shoes of his patrons while surreptitiously taking bets on the sly. When confronted by his boss, his temper flares and his prideful response is surely the cause of much of his self-destruction. His patient wife is there to support him at his lowest, and we’re treated to the embodiment of the nuclear family, fulfilling a vision of the stereotypical suburban life.
Under this bucolic image boils a deep rage. As the family unit disintegrates, things get more and more complicated for young Joe. Thanks to pitch-perfect performances and restrained direction, the transition fuels the film’s success, bringing us along at each moment to believable choices and consequences that never slide toward melodrama.
By eliciting such empathetic moments even when the characters are behaving badly, Dano’s work truly shines. We’re drawn into this world not via a sense of voyeurism but by connecting ourselves directly with the characters, understanding their flaws as reflecting our own, and seeing through Joe’s eyes our inability to put the shattered family unit back together again.
The film’s production design and visual style bely its low budget. Dano uses color and texture to lead us from a sunny introduction into the darker moments that unfold. Yet like the narrative, things never get so overwrought that they turn unbelievable. Instead, like many of Dano’s performances, this film is deeply impactful without the need for kinetic or explosive archness. With ‘Wildlife’, we see another element of Dano’s gift, transferring his subtle and sympathetic performance to the work of his collaborating actors. It’s a pleasurable transition, and speaks enormously to the range of Dano’s gift.