Starring Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould, Zoe Margaret Colletti, Bill Camp,
It’s pretty impressive what actor turned director Paul Dano (“Little Miss Sunshine,” “There Will Be Blood”) has accomplished in this his directorial debut. He gives Oscar-nominated Carey Mulligan one of her best roles in a script co-written with his partner Zoe Kazan (“The Big Sick”). “Wildlife” is a sobering often difficult film about family, marriage, and separation. We watch distressing events unfold through the eyes of a 14-year-old played masterfully by Ed Oxenbould (“Alexander and the Terrible…,” “The Visit”) who is better on screen here by leaps and bounds than the last time we saw him.
“Wildlife” has quite a bite to it, and just when you think you can survive this story without tears, the ending punches you in the face with an emotional wallop.
Upon arrival to small-town Montana, the Brinson family look like your average family of three looking for happiness and opportunity. However, The Brinson’s are a trio of underachievers. Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) can’t keep a job and his pride is more important than feeding his family. Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), who thinks her name sounds like that of a dull waitress, wants to live a comfortable life and is looking for any excuse to upend the situation she has found herself in. Joe (Oxenbould) just wants to be a kid with loving parents in a place he can come home to and feel like he belongs. After Jerry gets fired, he takes off to fight wildfires, leaving Jeanette and Joe to work and take care of things.
Dano’s script manages to keep the audience from hating these parents somehow, though I can’t explain it.
“I feel like I need to wake up,” Jeanette says after leading the family down a road that you don’t return from. We watch as this family unit slowly falls apart breaking our hearts in the process. Everything is from Joe’s point of view. He gives up football and friends to work to put food on the table or fix the toilet. Mulligan (“Suffragette,” “Mudbound”) has typically played more reserved roles. This is the most animated and surprising performance of her career. The character of Jeanette is the most colorful, for all the wrong reasons, and Mulligan plays it up in the film. Dano’s script manages to keep the audience from hating these parents somehow, I can’t explain it, but they are good people who get off course and struggle to find their way back. The solid performances also deserve much of the credit for the story’s success.
Compared to the slew of films recent films shot or set in Montana (“Certain Women,” “The Rider,” “Walking Out”), “Wildlife” shows the often desolately represented state in a different light aesthetically. Dano’s fresh approach to the fall of marital bliss and his ironic pastel interpretation of small-town Montana in the 1960’s is unconventionally creative. Everything in the film works together for this powerful ending that makes the beautiful poster even more heartbreaking in hindsight. As far as awards consideration, it’s a tough sell but would have better opportunities if Mulligan campaigns in the supporting actress category. Gyllenhaal has very limited screen time.
Final Thought – Paul Dano delivers a wholly impressive directorial debut that packs a powerful emotional punch in its conclusion.