There’s a movie worth seeing that is out there somewhere right about now. Not all cinemas are playing it, but if you happen to stumble upon it, do not think twice and just see it. The movie I’m raving about, and one that I haven’t been able to take off my mind for the past few days is Paul Dano’s directorial debut, Wildlife starring Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ed Oxenbould. It’s a low budget production that aims for the stars by keeping things grounded and well focused, something today’s feature films are mostly not up to, because they want to tell everything, show everything and preach everything. Wildlife, based on Richard Ford’s novel of the same title, doesn’t do that. And here’s why it works.
A family is on the move. Finally, they find a home in Montana, in a small town where people know each other by name. It’s 1960 and our main characters are trying to find a footing in their new setting. The husband, Jerry, played by Gyllenhaal, is doing his best as a valet at a local golf course to make ends meet and perhaps offer his son, Joe (Ed Oxenbould) a brighter future. Jeanatte (Mulligan) stays at home and waits for Jerry to return from work. She cooks, helps out with the homework, keeps her fingers crossed for everything to go well on a daily basis. But just like in life, and in Ford’s writing, things don’t go as planned. Jerry gets fired because of how personal he is with the golf club members and everything is back to square one. The Brinsons now have to come up with something. And it better be something good. Days go by and Jerry is stuck. He’s hit rock bottom, he feels trapped and to make things worse, his wife goes out and first thing she does is find a well paid job as a swimming instructor. How does that make him look? Then there’s a rumor. Rumor around town is that there is a fire coming from the mountains, destroying everything that stands in its way, and that they’re looking for men to go up there and fight the fire. Pay’s mediocre but you get to skip town for a while and only come back when the first snowflakes begin to fall. Enough time to blow off steam and think things over. Jerry makes up his mind and leaves.
Within the opening thirty minutes Wildlife is able to portray and entire family saga with the simple use of the mundane. Dano is not afraid to show our characters do things that can be considered uncinematic like grocery shopping, doing homework, eating supper, listening to the radio. The Brinsons are never presented like a happy family; they’re a real family, with problems that go beyond what’s on screen, with duties and chores that are not comparable to those of most film characters. Their lives revolve around the simple things; make it through the month, and go from there. So how does Wildlife talk about bigger things?
For starters, as mentioned before, it keeps many elements hidden under the surface. Not everything needs to be said out loud. When Jeanatte starts to work regularly, leaving Jerry at home, their confrontations are quiet, almost non-existent, but there is tension and anger at every turn. Instead of, for example, staging a big fight scene between the couple, Dano fills that initial runtime with extremely quiet scenes, such as a particularly beautiful one, where Jerry goes out in the backyard, smoking a cigarette, and watches as the sunset sky glows bright red due to the distant, raging fires. What goes on out there, in the far distance, goes on inside Jerry and inside Jerry’s home, too. There’s a fire building inside the Brinsons’ home and there’s no one to put it out. Jerry tries to explain the situation to his 14-year-old son, ”I got this hum inside my head. I need to do something about it. Do you understand?” Dano and writing partner Zoe Kazan know that each character deserves a fair chance; Jerry is not a victim but he’s also not a threat, he’s simply misunderstood, and feels impotent in the face of responsibility as a father and husband, unable to break through and show what he’s truly worth. Once Jerry gets on the truck that will drive him to fight the fire in the mountains, we’re left with Jeanatte and Joe and their new way of life in a house that now feels a little bit more spacious.
Mulligan plays Jeanatte beautifully, and builds upon what’s been laid out for her on paper. Jeanatte is also a big question mark for the viewer; she’s clearly better than her husband at adapting to various situations. She’s got skills other women in town could only dream of and yet her background is never explored other than a single mention of her time growing up on a ranch, being a cowboy girl. Her transformation that takes place in the second act of the film is something we rarely see on screen because of the difficulty of the situation her character is put in; Jeanatte begins to question her husband’s real motivation to go fight the fire, to the point that in an extremely moving sequence, she takes her son with her and goes on a day-long trip to the mountains, to where the firefighters are stationed. After they’ve passed the barracks, they move forward and Jeanatte pulls to the side of the road and tells Joe to get out of the car and have a look. The two of them stare at what seems to be a terrifying sight. She asks her son, ”Do you like it?”, to which the reply is ”No.” Jeanatte continues, ”You had to see what he finds so important. I’m sorry we both can’t sympathize with him.” So much is said in code that we can barely figure out what goes on in our characters’ minds. Joe stares at the terrifying sight (which turns out to be a landscape consumed by smoke and fire and dust) with tears welling up in his eyes. The entire scene plays out in a very inaccessible way for the viewer; there are no tips on how to interpret what our characters see and say. As viewers, and similarly to readers of Ford’s novel, we have no say in our characters’ actions. We are only meant to witness the emotional turmoil unfold and that is where Dano, as a young director, steps in.
Voiceover. That was the first thing that Dano decided to get rid of as the director of Wildlife. Characters had to live and breathe on their own without providing and receiving any feedback from the audience. Numerous times we see dramas that use voiceover as a tool to help spur the action forward and describe in detail what each character is thinking, what happened and why it happened. Yet Dano, a fine actor (you probably saw him in There Will Be Blood as Eli Sunday, or Little Miss Sunshine as the emotional teenager, or Prisoners, where he played the number one suspect) decides to take on the challenge of letting the camera do the work. Hence, so many quiet scenes where so little is said and yet so much happens. Dano works mostly with steady shots to encapsulate the small town feeling our characters are trapped in. The limited camera movements present each frame like a painting, a controlled space where nothing outside of the ordinary is bound to happen (as a fun exercise you might want to compare some of the scenes inside the house to similar scenes of arguments, discussions or simple exchanges in a few of Scorsese’s films, where anything can happen at anytime and the camera movement is dynamic and unpredictable, setting up an open playground for the characters). As the movie proceeds towards a brutal emotional development, Dano seems to make all the right choices, whether it is with his sparse use of close-ups in critical moments or his introduction of pop music to make certain scenes more vibrant, this is a directorial debut that deserves all the accolades. Through his vision we learn of a family that is falling apart but for individual reasons; be it Jerry’s pride, Joe’s difficult coming of age, or Jeanatte’s confusion and sudden realization that perhaps this was not the life she dreamed of. Few movies are able to tear a family apart, step by step, like Wildlife does, and the more interesting thing is its complete indifference when it comes to patching things up. This is not a feel good movie, this is a movie that deals with real situations in a very realistic way, letting the action unfold on its own, putting all its ingredients into one basket; the characters’ emotions. In other words, if you want drama, look no further, because Wildlife’s approach to this genre is quite riveting; it never goes overboard like Revolutionary Road, another period piece about emotional turmoil in a relationship, and it never falls flat like other recent family dramas such as last year’s The Wife (for which Glenn Close is generating Oscar buzz). Dano’s vehicle digs deeper than most because it never allows us to have a say, and it never makes it easy for us to directly and openly judge the characters on screen. This is a movie that is not afraid to confront the viewer with something he/she can’t quite decipher. And that, in today’s cinematic age is a blessing in disguise.