There’s something vaguely precarious in trying to describe Wildlife. The premise of a teenage boy (Ed Oxenbould) watching the dissolution of his parents’ (Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal) in real time could hardly be easier to sum up, yet it does a disservice to Wildlife and the textures that its artists have given it in execution to leave it at that. It’s not as if the film is an exemplar of this particular kind of story, but the ways it succeeds feel like tiny but substantial triumphs many domestic dramas could stand to take notes on, and its failures still indicative of a film that’s willing to take risks inside its own stylized milieu. The story itself hits its best notes when it finds the right balance between what’s happening to this specific family and how this reflects families in general, something that largely depends on which of its three main actors are in any given scene. Everything about Wildlife plays like the opposite of grandiose, but the directorial hand of Paul Dano – the newest in the recent wave of actors-turned-directors in his generation – is so remarkably assured in tone, tempo, and period that it feels wrong to call it a small achievement.
Our main character is Joe, the fourteen year old son of Jerry and Jeannette Brinson, who have recently moved to a small Montana town. They don’t appear to be inordinately happy together, nor do they seem unhappy in a way that foreshadows the disruptions to come. Then Jerry is fired from his job, too wounded by pride to accept an olive branch his family desperately needs yet even more upset when it’s proven he’s not needed as the family’s sole provider. This immediate tension seems to be the biggest reason for Jerry’s sudden decision to join up with the town’s firefighting unit, working for one dollar an hour to fight wildfires in pine forests until winter comes and douses them all out. It’s indicated repeatedly that this choice, like their move to Montana, is symptomatic of years of Jerry running away from his problems rather than facing them, which is the exact opposite strategy that his wife takes by way of confiding just about everything she’s feeling about her past, her marriage, and the family’s prospects to Joe.
What’s most interesting about Wildlife is that, at least for me, all of its elements emerge fully formed, staying pretty consistent within themselves while still leaving room for surprise and spontaneity. Dano and Zoe Kazan appear to have largely written the film into fairly short scenes, covering a lot of terrain as the Brinson family changes shape without delineating how much time is really passing in the world at large, blurring our senses without neglecting to detail their era. They also know when to dive deeper into a particularly long day, making the centerpiece of the film a dinner sequence whose participants have very different, fluctuating ideas of what a good time looks like and no end of discomfort between them, but also finding room for images that peek into their own, separate stories, like smog-covered trying to stay awake long enough to finish their lunch in a diner. Diego García’s cinematography is a major asset to Wildlife’s ambitions with story and tone, creating the kind of subtly informative and undeniably attractive images a film like this needs to tell its story and keep from being the kind of “actor’s film” that defines itself as such by having no other assets in its construction. García repeatedly utilizes color, shot length, framing, and blocking to convey moving visual indicators on the film’s themes and dynamics, shaking up his visual rhythms such that a shot is never exactly predictable even while staying within a muted but expressive color palette. Sometimes putting an actor in front of a blank wall or colored surface is enough to evoke the backdrops of the photograph company Joe works at, contrasting the posed happiness of so many different couples and families to the candid but upsetting realities at home. Wildlife is never a close-up movie, though García knows when to zoom on Oxenbould’s watchful expressions and when to sit still and let Mulligan’s shifting expressions speak for themselves; when to shoot a reaction before revealing the provocation itself, when to situate an actor in their environment in the foreground or background or blot out everything except their faces. It’s versatile, film-elevating work that elevates its story tremendously without just becoming a showcase.
Less dexterous are the performances of Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal, who don’t necessarily feel like they’re contributing poor characterizations to Wildlife but ones removed from the style it’s so gorgeously inhabiting. Clearly the two have put a lot of work into their roles, making specific choices about how Jeannette and Jerry feel about their marriage, their son, their financial state, their own unmooring senses of all of these things. At all times their work is emotionally legible, but never are there any layers to be unpacked, any mysteries about why this incident has fractured them so badly. I didn’t know Mulligan’s face could be so expressive, and her candid approach fares better than Gyllenhaal’s, but the impact of her performance at her most bracing – confiding so many anxieties and suspicions to Joe in a diner, after Joe asks if she still loves Jerry – is ultimately limited because she’s been seemingly just as forthcoming in every scene up to that point. In performance style and personal behavior, neither character feels very connected to the film’s period, both of them coming off as tonally out of key while suggesting much richer results in another film.
A better juxtaposition of what’s missing from Wildlife’s adult actors lies in the performance of Ed Oxenbould, who conveys a lot of interiority and watchfulness without pulling a lot of faces or over-elaborating Joe’s responses to his parent’s actions. Usually his reactions are conveyed through small shifts in posture, in tone, in expression, picking up on the fault lines Mulligan and Gyllenhaal are very noticeably exposing but still understanding the larger implications of these emotions, though we recognize he’d still be clocking them even if his parents were better at hiding their feelings. We never get the sense that he’s judging Jeannette and Jerry for their actions, even as he’s undoubtedly rocked by the choices they’ve made as it relates to the Brinson’s remaining a stable family unit. I wondered occasionally if his retinue of expressions was a little limited, he’s still marvelously attuned to the tone and era of Wildlife, projecting a concentrated idea of quaint, 60’s Boy that still registers as his own person. It’s his behavior in the film’s last sequence, three years later, that sets the mood for how their family has been interacting without the promise that it will get any better or any worse. Yet we also understand that he’s a little bit fuller as a person, knows a little more than he had before, and couldn’t quite fit under the rejoinder that he “knows nothing of the world” as he did when we last saw him.
It’s through Oxenbould’s performance and García’s shooting that Wildlife reveals its greatest potentials, offering the vantage of one young teenager helplessly watching his household fall apart but also learning about the lives of adults through this event. Had Mulligan and Gyllenhaal synced the tenor of their performances better to García’s colors, Oxenbould’s interior-focused work, and Dano’s controlled and actor-friendly shaping, there could be even more to actively praise the film for tackling, about what a nuclear family falling apart just as the concept is introduced would look like. Though Dano’s handle on performance is less nuanced than Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird or interesting in big, flamboyant arcs than Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born, he’s equally prodigious at shaking off the cliché’s baked into his story to make it feel like something new; Of those three, Wildlife is for sure the movie I would pick last if given the choice, and all of them have considerable strengths, though one could credit him with a more distinct visual style than the former and a more consistently told story than the latter. As someone who hasn’t been a huge fan of Dano the actor outside his marvelous turn in Love & Mercy, I’m very excited to see what Dano the director has waiting in the future.