OCCASIONALLY, WHEN YOU ignore the hype and opt to see a film that has not been aggressively marketed or thrust in your face, you come across a true gem. Paul Dano’s Wildlife touches on the complexity of gender in an age of misogyny and broken dreams, with the smell of forest fires looming.
This tender and bold yet understated period piece, with extraordinarily well chosen and tightly composed music, set in Montana 1960 is about a boy, Joe (Ed Oxenbould), who is forced to be the moral compass in his small family. Each character is carefully evolved with a deep understanding of what it takes to prove yourself to the world in the 1960s. Joe’s dad Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) turns into a man when he bucks a trend to be a simpering lackey. He ponders, shrinking into deep depression, about what happens next, and viably becomes a ‘thing’ to his son and wife. But it’s momentary – this thingness – and Jerry vindicates himself in this small town in the way in which any young man does, when there is war to be fought. He goes to battle the demon.
Joe’s mum Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) is, like the man she married, a product of her time. Being a woman, she’s compromised from the get go. She’s uneducated, deeply focused on keeping a straight (and suitably pretty) face, and when faced with challenges, takes on whatever is necessary in her limited perspective that has no room for empathy. In so many respects, this character, played to the hilt with credibility, is the work’s anti-hero.
You may consider Ed Oxenbould to be an odd choice of performer for the role of the progeny of this couple, as the film begins. He’s a very sedate young man, and though the character is 14-years-old, in many situations, he seems like an old man, ponderous in his focus. This eventually fits into place, as you realise the burden Joe carries. In many respects, the plight of young Joe evokes that of Ruth Ellis’s son as depicted in the 1985 film Dance with a Stranger, with Miranda Richardson in the title role.
And then there’s the love interest, Warren Miller (Bill Camp), or rather the man who Jeanette flings herself at, replete with a whole litany of lies she feeds her son on, until it’s too late, and the horror of exposing sexual indelicacies to her child is exposed. Miller’s an ordinary guy – with a touch of poetry in his heart, but weakness around scantily clad seemingly available women. It’s a film that may also make you think of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, with its utter narrative perfection.
Behind all of this is the potency of the photographic portrait and the fury of fire. Or, rather the propensity for forest fires in Montana. And this is the incendiary line that runs through this carefully structured work. Formal studio photography becomes a metaphor to hold and reveal things about characters that takes your breath away. The characters are balanced but cleanly crafted, the film ends just before it is in danger of slipping into maudlin. In short, it’s a true gem of a work.
- Wildlife is directed by Paul Dano and features a cast headed by Lexi Anastasia, Avery Bagenstos, Stephanie Ballard, Chris Bodelle, Kaye Brownlee-France, Travis W Bruyer, Bill Camp, Stacy Casaluci, Kathy Kelly Christos, Gabriel Clark, Zoe Margaret Colletti, Matt Coulson, Darryl Cox, Laurie Cummings, J Alan Davidson, Shane D Davidson, Jay Dee, Dakota Dennis, Chris Dry, Ronnie Felts, Taylor Fono, Michael Gibbons, Ginger Gilmartin, Jake Gyllenhaal, JR Hatchett, Russell Herrera Jr, Cate Jones, Kami King, Charles Lipps, Nick Marchetti, Blaine Maye, Kirsten Melling, Mollie Milligan, Ashton Moffitt, Devin Montgomery, Connie Lynn Moore, Sara Moore, Carey Mulligan, Dale Murphy, Richard L Olsen, Tom Huston Orr, Ed Oxenbould, Jordan Preston, Ashton Ree, John Reimer, Erik P Resel, Jennifer Rogers, Justin Sheldon, Tryston Skye, Nick Swezey, Curtis D Tucker, Marshall Virden, John Walpole, Greg Williams and Dustin Wilson. It is written by Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan based on the book by Richard Ford. Produced by Paul Dano, Andrew Duncan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riva Marker, Oren Moverman, Ann Ruark and Alex Saks , it features creative input by David Lang (composer), Diego Garcia (cinematography), Louise Ford and Matthew Hannam (editing), Jodi Angstreich and Laura Rosenthal (casting), Akin McKenzie (production design) and Amanda Ford (costumes). Release date, through Cinema Nouveau, Ster Kinekor: January 11 2019.