Breakout directorial debuts are always something that will either make me wary or excited for the respective film; in this particular case, I was excited, but oddly enough not for Paul Dano’s directorial debut but instead his wife Zoe Kazan. Ruby Sparks (2012) is a film that caught my attention years back, it starred both Kazan and Dano as a couple in this romance flick, but it also debuted Zoe Kazan as a writer – it was a solid flick. What we have here with Wildlife is a duel partnership, Dano as a director and Kazan as a writer- together? Well, I simply didn’t know what to expect.
Wildlife follows a fourteen-year-old named Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould), as he witnesses his parents, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) marriage deteriorate as he witnesses his mother struggle with her identity and father grapple with his manhood.
This film plays out the traditional American family structure that was in place with the 1960’s such as the female housewife and male breadwinner stereotype that was inside the common household. With that in mind, the film comes off striking at first seeing a different family dynamic that isn’t all that common in these modern times, yet the film delicately portrays this to feel natural within the context of the narrative. As certain events of the film start to occur, Jerry and Jeanette begin to mold into their own conceptual selves as they break loose from their family roles. As Jerry goes to assist the fighting of the forest fires happening at the Canadian border, it begins to put a lot of strain on the family and in particular – Jeanette. Carey Mulligan’s portrayal of a complicated but self-determined woman bent on the idea of reinvention leads to her finest performance yet.
As Jeanette begins to stray away from the norms and values of women in the 1960’s, Mulligan becomes a force of nature illustrating someone who is broken but is desperately (with strength) attempting to seize control of herself and her future. However, the real challenge is with Oxenbould as he is in a role that is required to present such deep and unique emotions of a teenager witnessing his parents’ marriage disintegrating and discovering what it means to be an adult. Oxenbould brilliantly pulls this off as the situations that Joe is confronted with are devastating and quite traumatic for a fourteen-year-old. Jake Gyllenhaal’s role is modest in this film and his performance thrives on the context of the narrative, in spite of his small inclusion in the larger context of the story, his smaller role felt apt for a narrative that seemed to be focusing more heavily on a mother and son dynamic.
The script prospers from its deeply humane story that is handled with attentiveness to detail and is exquisite in its study of its characters. In many ways the film is a coming-of-age story that is distinctive inside that genre, but Dano and co-writer Zoe Kazan approach the genre from a different angle that it could almost be considered a feminist exploration. The film can often lose its momentum as the story doesn’t flow as consistently as I’d hoped; thankfully Mulligan pulls you back in as you are drawn to her character with her mesmerizing on-screen presence.
The film also thrives on its technical scope from its graceful camera-work from cinematographer Diego Garcia to the intricate 1960’s set pieces from Akin McKenzie. Garcia gives the film an alluring sensation to its visual spectrum as the film has a range of strong frame compositions that make it comfortable to the eye. Another strength is that Garcia will use camera-movement wisely, usually when a character is experiencing deep thought or emotion. The production design is detailed as it accurately depicts a small-town inside 1960’s America and helps the film to feel authentic in its story that it is telling. The score composed by David Lang is one that is unobtrusive as it hums quietly in the background that supports the dejected experience that Joe is currently experiencing. Lang thankfully doesn’t succumb to the usual composing music cliche where the score is designed to make you feel emotions, but rather the score supports the emotions in the moment and it works.
You can clearly see that Paul Dano has paid close attention to the master directors he has worked with and taken notes as it’s shown in Wildlife. As far as Wildlife goes, it marks an astounding directorial debut for Dano and his wife Zoe Kazan as the writer, as they deliver a somber story with an emotional punch that is expertly delivered from its cast.