Not only is Wildlife Paul Dano’s debut behind the camera but also the first time he has written a screenplay. Before the script for his adaptation of Richard Ford’s novel reached its final form, he passed it onto his partner, actress Zoe Kazan. She believed the script needed a lot of work to shape it into a coherent story and undertook the job of re-writing it. How different the two versions were we’ll never know, but it would be interesting to see if Dano’s original draft wasn't as distant and emotional disconnected as the finished product.
Dano’s film is set in 1960 at a time of big change in America, with the contraceptive pill set to be approved and the post-war generation ready to challenge tradition. The pill liberated millions of women who were able to control not only their bodies, but also their careers. Wildlife doesn’t thrust itself into the heart of this societal revolution but instead focusses on a small family unit living in Montana near to the border of Canada, giving us domestic upheaval as seen through the eyes of 14-year-old Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould).
There is a little of Dano in Oxenbould’s Joe, not only in terms of physicality but in a character that is a slightly awkward and shies away from revealing too much of himself. He studies well and has aspirations of getting onto the high school football team to make friends and is at an impressionable age where he looks towards his father for inspiration. Joe has not long settled in the area with his father, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), and mother, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), after moving home several times due to Jerry’s habit of chopping and changing jobs.
A deep seated unhappiness hangs silently over the house, reaching back to Jerry’s failed professional golfing career. He now does menial work at a local golf course but after suddenly being fired he sinks into a deep depression. Jeanette tells Joe its just a matter of hurt pride and he'll soon be back on his feet. But when Jerry leaves home and heads out of town to fight a forest fire for $1 an hour, the flames rise in his own home and threaten to engulf the family. Jeanette heads back to full-time work and Joe can only watch on helplessly as the solid foundations of his home life are slowly ripped from under his feet.
While there is an emotional gap between us and characters that is never fully bridged, all of the performances are strong and Oxenbould perhaps edges it over his more experienced fellow cast members. The camera locks onto his face watching for a reaction to the desperate behaviour of his mother in Jerry's absence, and although he never gives much away, the emotional turmoil is all there in his eyes. Joe is awkwardly exposed to a lot of his mother’s inner thoughts that most teenagers would run a mile from, but he feels he represents his father while he's not around, cooking dinner, fixing the toilet and bringing home money from his part-time job.
Jeanette’s unravelling once Jerry leaves is partly understandable but equally as uncomfortable to watch. She moves from loyal housewife to flirtatious available woman in a short space of time and it forces her into a head space where she reconsiders her role as a wife and mother in service to the men of the house. Mulligan really gets her teeth into the role, showing the uncertainty and excitement that surrounds her actions, with the possibilities of the world she once left behind now opening back up to her later in life.
For a first time effort Dano has crafted a subtle drama that is well shot, edited and performed by the cast, although the characters remain a little elusive and inaccessible. He certainly shows a lot of promise as a director and perhaps working from his own script or partnering with someone outside of his own home could produce something more impactful. Wildlife is as quiet and thoughtful as many of the roles Dano has taken on throughout his acting career and serves as a solid platform for him to build on.
Wildlife will be playing at this year's London Film Festival and although all the tickets have now sold out, it will be opening in UK cinemas on November 9th.