Sometimes, when an actor says he or she is actually interested in directing, there’s a collective eye-roll from those within earshot. It’s like a singer saying “But what I really want to do is…act!” These talents don’t often overlap, making those who have successfully made the leap from one discipline to another all the more impressive.
Add Paul Dano to that list of the latter, those who’ve earned their bragging rights as a multi-hyphenate. His directorial debut, Wildlife (which he co-wrote with Zoe Kazan, adapted from a book by Richard Ford), lands squarely in the “impressive” camp as it explores a nuclear family’s breakdown in the 1950s from the perspective of only child Joe (Ed Oxenbould, The Visit), a teenager unmoored by his parents’ mid-life crises.
Jake Gyllenhall and Carey Mulligan are said parents, Jerry and Jeanette Brinson, and if I have one quibble with the film (which may be my only one), it’s this casting. As individuals, each of these actors is incredible, both in general and in their roles here. And yet, I couldn’t quite buy that these two, still in their thirties and young even by Hollywood standards, would already be parents to this older teen and in the throes of such existential turmoil. I’ve not read the story on which Wildlife is based, and don’t recall there being mention of their youth as a plot point in the film. Perhaps it’s all part of the greater narrative, the sympathy their youth elicits as they tackle quite intense circumstances, these unfortunate souls already faced with such unhappiness and unfulfilled expectations.
But I digress, as the cumulative effect of Dano’s writing and directing, Gyllenhaal and Mulligan’s acting and Diego García’s camera work is a beautifully tragic account of a family in demise, three people tied by relations who, in the end, don’t know each other at all. When Jerry, a golf pro, loses his job and moves the family to Montana where he hopes to find better work. Jeannette obediently if begrudgingly goes along with her husband’s new plan, putting her efforts into building a home for her boys with dinner on the table every night. When Jerry can’t find a decent job in town, she takes it upon herself to find something to tide them over, ultimately becoming a swim instructor at the community pool. Looming over the town are the wildfires off in the mountains, threatening to subsume the ranch-style houses and corner diners of this nondescript small town.
Having run out of options, Jerry breaks the news to Jeannette and Joe: he’s going to fight the fire, and they’ll be on their own while he does. If the marriage was already on thin ice as Jerry drags Jeaneatte across the country in search of work, the cracks become fissures when he unilaterally announces this latest risky decision. And all along, there’s Joe, watching from his unique vantage point of the middle, trying to be everything to each of them without causing any new disturbances to their fragile family dynamic.
It’s not always an inviting prospect, watching a film about self-destruction, struggle and breakdowns. The journey is painful and fraught with landmines, as one watched the bad decisions pile up, waiting for the inevitable reckoning. Wildlife manages to make such a harrowing experience exceptional, as the audiences shares the burden of spectatorship with Joe, quite literally at times. He watches his mother come undone, helpless to stop it and completely at a loss as to how to deal with it (let alone if he should tell his father). That Mulligan makes Jeanette’s unraveling so poignant only adds to the gut-wrenching effect of it all; watch her closely, as even in her relative youth there are years of damage and heaps of emotional baggage evident in a single line delivery or a look on her face in an otherwise fleeting moment.
The metaphor of the film—a fire that threatens to consume if something drastic doesn’t change, if preventative measures are not taken—is not exactly subtle, but it works. The Brinsons are a family already on alarm when we meet them, low and undetectable as it may be. Each new disruption, however benign, only serves to fuel what’s already on the brink of combustion. And in Dano’s capable hands, it’s a slow burn that’s achingly captivating.