There’s a tender poetry to the small-town discontent of Paul Dano’s directorial debut, Wildlife. Based on the Richard Ford novel, the film follows a working-class husband and wife through the crumbling of their marriage, their story told through the plaintive eyes of their 14-year-old son. He sees it all: The frustration that sits in his father’s furrowed brow when he loses yet another job. The strain on the smile of his mother’s face as she attempts to buck him up before a family dinner. The growing cracks in their veneers of happiness.
Set in 1960 Montana, Wildlife is tucked into a cozy town that’d look lovely on a postcard. But through Dano’s lens, its quiet streets, rumbling train, and the sprawling mountains beyond have the beauty and vague melancholy of an Edward Hopper painting. The sunset is vivid in pinks and purples, yet ominous. The houses charming yet morose. The people pleasant-looking, yet pained.
The script by Dano and Zoe Kazan deftly paints Jerry and Jeanette Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan) as dashing fantasists who’ve been failed by reality. They’re a handsome couple with natural charisma. People have always said Jerry, in particular, is personable. They imagined a great big world out there, giddy to be theirs for the taking. But careful questions from their son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) reveal this move to Montana was the latest in a long line of false starts and frustrations by his father, whose ego is easily and unforgivably wounded by his lack of wealth and position. While his father broods with beer and ballgames on the radio, Joe’s mother seeks satisfaction in a part-time job. But Jerry only resents this, seeing it as a sign that he can’t provide for his family.
When he takes a dangerous, poor-paying, and far-flung job fighting wildfires, he leaves his wife and son behind in their now too big rental house. To Jeannette, it’s like he’s fleeing or abandoning them. The couple’s repressed resentments are let loose to rage in screams and accusations. And once Jerry is gone—for an undetermined spell—Joe watches his mother’s furtive attempt to reclaim herself. She squeezes into the flashier clothes of her youth, glittery belts, snug jeans, a bright purple cowboy shirt. A cigarette fidgeting in her fingers, she reminisces about her youth as a “chute beauty,” who was admired at rodeos, and who easily wooed his father. She begins to flirt with a wealthy divorcee, but can only fitfully hide her disdain at the position he holds over this struggling sort-of single mom.
Though Joe is the movie’s center, Jeannette is its protagonist. He is her witness. Trapped by the roles of wife and mother, she yearns to feel desirable. She takes out resentment at her absent husband on her earnest son in snide remarks (“You gonna waste your whole life watching me?”) and the occasional slap. She’s a mess. Joe knows it. But she’s still his mom. And more than depending on her, this boy who’s forced to face conflicts beyond his years, he truly sees her. He smells the smoke of the fire in the distance but is helpless to keep away the flames.
With a soft lisp, wide eyes and a zealous grin, Oxenbould efficiently embodies this big-hearted boy pushed into recognizing his parents as deeply flawed people. Gyllenhaal crackles with low-boil rage, which occasionally froths into heart-breaking outbursts. But this is Mulligan’s movie. The dialogue gives her grand and sassy proclamations, like a diva out of a 1950s studio drama starring Bette Davis or Joan Crawford. But rather than deliver them with a diva’s bravura or Oscar-baiting histrionics, Mulligan’s approach is confidence tiptoeing on fragility. As she unleashes a scathing remark, her voice quivers almost imperceptibly, implying this is a pose Jeannette is trying on. She imagines herself as she might be and tries to bring the fantasy of such grand dames into her humble life of swimming lessons, humble homes, and aching ennui.
Wildlife is a drama alive with pain and love. How delicious that last year Kazan helped bring life to a couple-penned script that won Academy Award attention, and this year she could follow in the footsteps of The Big Sick’s Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani. Her script with Dano sings of quiet desperation and stinging hope. Dano’s direction urges performances that are tender symphonies of everyday agonies. And Gyllenhaal and Mulligan are perfect onscreen partners for its music. Their dance is bittersweet and biting, at times more a battle than a ballet, but always beautiful, even in its emotional brutality.
Wildlife is a part of the New York Film Festival It will hit theaters in limited release October 19.
Header Image Source: Sony