Beloved actor Paul Dano, who has given us nothing but great performances, tries his hand at directing with Wildlife (2018) and the result is an absolute stunner. Dano mines the smallest details in the acclaimed 1990 novel of the same name to create a beautifully nuanced portrait of a woman who’s struggling to keep up with the feminist stirrings and discontent she feels inside. She is played by Carey Mulligan, who simply knocks it out of the park with an unsparing yet subtle performance.
Jake Gyllenhaal, who only appears at the beginning and then towards end of the movie, creates a conflicted portrait of her husband Jerry, a shoe polisher at a golf club, who gets fired from his job and lets his pride reject a later offer from his bosses to take him back. His decision to go fight a forest fire for a dollar an hour reflects an impulsive selfishness that leaves his family stunned. “What kind of man leaves his wife and child in such a lonely place?” asks Jeanette (Mulligan).
The movie is largely seen through the eyes of their son Joe, played by Ed Oxenbould, who gives us a heartfelt performance and lets us experience what’s happening through his disoriented perspective. Some sequences are so uncannily crafted by Dano and his young star that you can fully feel the weight of the dilemmas and the aches the 14-year-old must be feeling.
But it’s Mulligan who provides the film’s focus as Jeanette realises that playing her part as a decent, mid-century housewife has left her flailing. Jeanette signs on as a swimming instructor where she comes from into contact with Warren Miller (Bill Camp), a lech whose wealth offers the promise of a safe harbour. At a catastrophic dinner at Warren’s home, Joe is forced to watch his mother dancing provocatively for dessert and begin to consider sexual compromises that he’s not equipped to understand. It’s a striking sequence with psychological undercurrents. Bill Camp finds the predatory bluster and unexpected kindness in Warren with just the perfect balance to strike hope and fear in the hearts of the mother and son.
The only downside I can think of to this film is the lack of originality. It’s a story of a post-war dysfunctional American family in the 1950s, with a selfish father. I know what you’re thinking: we’ve seen it before. But not like this. Wildlife leaves you deeply moved by its vital take on a woman who’s frustrated with how her life’s been turning out, and who decides to come out of her shackles.
It’s a minimalist yet powerful movie. The final sequences are quiet and un-showy, and when the credits roll, you know you’ve witnessed something special and intimate.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.