Film Review: Wildlife

Indie star Paul Dano makes an impressive directorial bow with this adaptation Richard Ford’s 1990 novel about a lower-middle-class family about to be torn apart.
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It’s not so surprising that Paul Dano, who has consistently impressed as a featured actor in acclaimed indies like Love & Mercy, 12 Years a Slave, There Will Be Bloodand Little Miss Sunshine, would know how to handle matters behind the camera. But Wildlife, a slow-simmering but ultimately explosive work, still surprises. That Dano coaxes so much viewer attention to a seemingly unremarkable nuclear family in a bland, rural town where no tourist would venture is key.

Much credit for this superb adaptation goes to Dano’s interest in details (the characters’ unease, the ‘60s design, the pacing) and the authenticity brought by his savvy casting of Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal as the husband and wife, Bill Camp as a gentle wild card and, in his breakthrough, Ed Oxenbould as the couple’s teenage son. Wildlifeis a gem that, like the forest fire that sets the story in motion, should ignite good word of mouth.

Jeanette and Jerry Brinson (Mulligan and Gyllenhaal) are a couple newly arrived in Great Falls, Montana, where Jerry takes a job as a maintenance worker at a golf course. Jeanette continues as the caring kind of housewife and mother that the placid 1950s codified, while 15-year-old son Joe (Oxenbould) adjusts to his new school. But the family’s hopes for a place where they can finally settle are shaken when mild-mannered, accommodating Jerry is fired because his boss (incorrectly) thought him too chatty with a club member. Jerry struggles to find work, as does Jeanette, who grows increasingly concerned about their security.

Joe senses the growing unease building in his parents’ marriage. A keen and discrete observer, much unfolds from his point of view.

Matters take a sharp turn when Jerry goes off to join a crew fighting a forest fire some distance way at the Canadian border and Jeanette, left alone, lands work as a swimming instructor at the local Y. While their marriage was never perfect, Jeanette grows restless without a mate. It’s also through Joe’s eyes that we watch a relationship blossom between Jeanette and Warren Miller (Bill Camp), a wealthy widower and her former student at the Y. Meanwhile, Joe lands a part-time job as assistant to the local photographer. Much ensues as the lives of all four make unexpected swerves.

Nowhere as deep an examination of the institution of marriage as Ingmar Bergman’s dead-serious Scenes from a Marriage or as vicious and cringe-inducing as Danny DeVito’s darkly comic TheWar of the Roses, Dano’s take, by way of novelist Richard Ford (The Sportswriter, Independence Day), is to let matters build, driven on the undercurrents of human nature.

Some minor gripes aside (e.g., rather abrupt shifts in both Jeanette’s and Jerry’s characters and an extreme action questionably addressed), Wildlife offers a fresh glimpse of lower-class anomie and the rhythms of life in a simpler time and place.