Wildlife: Paul Dano’s Sorrowful Directorial Debut

Paul Dano’s directorial debut sees Joe (Ed Oxenbould), a shy teenager, caught between his warring parents (Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal). As unemployment and desperation tears the small family apart, Joe must understand his parent’s extraordinary actions and more importantly forgive them.

The story is set in 1960, an America on the cusp of Cultural Revolution. As Gyllenhaal’s father figure crumbles under the weight of pride and the expectations of society, Carey Mulligan’s mother finds herself disappointed by her apparent provider and the limitations enforced on her by her small town life. Traditional family roles crush these people and their hopes. They are unable often to even articulate their dissatisfaction or find a solution to their sorrow.

These may be conventional character dynamics, but what’s new is the depth of feeling that Dano allows his actors to bring to their roles. None more so than Ed Oxenbould’s powerless adolescent who’s fragile exterior betrays a terrible hollowness. Mulligan meanwhile is outstandingly understated, authentically embodying the 50’s wife in crisis. Her mania is terrifying but never inexplicable or melodramatic. Gyllenhaal effortlessly achieves a subdued anxiety that is constantly on the verge of erupting. Scenes of the two arguing are electric.

Dialogue is sparse in Dano and Zoe Kazan’s script but the focus is very much on character. Dano and cinematographer Diego Garcia use the camera to trap the characters in shallow focus. Intense detail set against a blurred fog. The terrifying mountain landscape looms large on the horizon, threatening to crush the tiny characters and their concerns. Amidst the family drama a wildfire burns in the distance, an ever present danger that looms over the entire film. The contrast of consuming personal travesty in a small town with titanic natural disaster can’t help but recall The Coen Brother’s A Serious Man, but the fire in Wildlife has a much more insidious method of tearing this family apart.

Photography itself becomes an important element of the film. Joe finds refuge from his increasingly challenging domestic life in his job at the town photography studio. He has complete control over his subjects, can bring them together, move them apart, he can control the mood of the picture and ensure that only the best is captured to be treasured by his customers. This serves both as a critique of the potentially limiting effect of photography but also a tribute to the cathartic power of the form.

Wildfire is a beautifully assembled and profoundly emotional family drama. Dano proves himself, perhaps predictably, an actor’s director, allowing his performers to drive the narrative. As screenwriters, Dano and Kazan have created a familiar dynamic and imbued with powerful and tragic life.

Five Stars

Wildlife will be premiering at The BFI London Film Festival on 13TH October, 20:45 at Picturehouse Central

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