December 28, 2018

CINEMA | A House on Fire – Paul Dano Tames 'Wildlife'

"Well, ain't this a wild life, son?"
Carey Mulligan Ed Oxenbould Jake Gyllenhaal Paul Dano | Wildlife

Actor turned filmmaker Paul Dano makes his directorial debut adapting author Richard Ford's 1990 novel. Focused on an emotionally distant married couple and their teenage son, Wildlife proves to be such a remarkable, lovingly-made American slice of life period drama.

Set in seemingly idyllic 1960s Montana, Carey Mulligan offers wildly impressive and slowly transformative performance as Jeanette. She's a somewhat desperate housewife and mother struggling to keep her family afloat after her aimless, unemployed husband Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) leaves the family to fight forest fires. Mulligan's acting is full of searing emotional depth in how she quickly becomes more domestically unhinged as the film progresses.

Gyllenhaal portrays the father as a sort of stirring, brooding portrait of failed masculinity. Filled with misguided pride, his developments as an inadequate provider captures a kind of quiet impotency expressed as mid-century malaise.

Seen through the compassionate eyes of their fourteen-year-old son Joe, played by a very sincere Ed Oxenbould, he reluctantly witnesses his parents' slowly crumbling marriage stuck in the middle of their quietly simmering dysfunction. His performance is so soulful and mannered as his point of view frames how we see the family's ongoing struggles.

Ed Oxenbould Paul Dano | Wildlife

Veteran actor Bill Camp waltzes in—he plays an older, divorced businessman looking to schmooze Jeanette while Jerry is away—and steals his few scenes with a mature yet deceptive breadth. His is among many performances that litter Wildlife with a knowing sense of uncertainty the time period foreshadows in modern American life without delving into unnecessary romanticism.

The script from Dano and his partner Zoe Kazan is superbly spare. Written by two actors who are also a couple, they clearly left room for the actors to realize the subtleties of their characters' inner lives. Peppered with an observational eye and deliberate storytelling choices, Dano and cinematographer Diego García paint the film with such scenic gaze that reflects the simmering turmoil within the characters.

Dano's tender direction is so assured and confident with how the dramatic material is confidently handled. His balance of modest but affecting character performances and relationships exquisitely expresses the actors' fine portrayals. It's such a sensitive dramatization of the slow destruction of a past American way of life evolving out the post-war period into modern life. All the actors are uniformly excellent in their roles echoing the end of a historical era yet with a timeless appeal.

Wildlife will be available to stream on iTunes and through video on demand starting January 1st.

More | YVArcade / Indiewire / Slate / The Playlist / Vulture

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