It’s the time of year where well-known actors release their debuts behind the camera. Earlier this year, Bradley Cooper delivered A Star is Born. Next up is Paul Dano’s Wildlife, an ably directed small-scale drama. You might remember Dano from There Will be Blood, Swiss Army Man or Prisoners, reliably great in all of them. The script is co-written by Zoe Kazan, whose performance in The Big Sick was her largest role but whose resume is as long and varied as Dano’s. The two have been a couple since 2007 and co-starred in Ruby Sparks, which Kazan wrote. Their first feature as a writing-directing duo is an adaptation of Richard Ford’s 1990 novel of the same name and its “marriage dissolution” story. It more or less works perfectly, buoyed by two stellar lead performances and an empathetic approach to two adults whose individual problems are exacerbated by one another despite mutual affection and history.
Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) is a housewife whose dissatisfaction with her husband Jerry’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) inability to hold down a job leads her to drastic action. Jerry has led his family — including son Joe (Ed Oxenbould, also a standout) — from city to city as he takes on jobs he can’t seem to keep. After parking their family in the northernmost regions of Montana, Jerry finds himself once again without work and drawn to fight a raging forest fire a few miles from home. Jeanette struggles. Jerry has to process it.
Mulligan feels like an actress with more credits than she actually has. Her raw talent has gotten her extremely far. It’s odd that she has fewer credits than either Dano or Kazan, but I guess it works out that way sometimes. She’s been in one movie in the past few years, and before that only a few a year — almost all great films, though. Her appearance in Wildlife marks a memorable turn that might garner award nominations. Jeanette’s emotionally visceral reaction to Jerry’s shortsighted selfishness takes some uncomfortable turns, but she is never not sympathetic, someone broken in a way she never anticipated and completely unsure how to deal with it.
Oxenbould, too, is great as a quiet, family-bound kid whose steadiness and introversion creates an emotional core for the family when everything spins out of control.
And, of course, Gyllenhaal brings it. As always.
It’s an actor’s movie for the most part, the kind of film you go to see purely to watch the artists art. Dano’s direction serves them, creating a pretty well-realized world in the form of remote Montana. He takes a few opportunities to add flourish. It’s fun to watch but not ostentatious or distracting. There are no moments of Dano trying to put an artificial stamp on his work. His script with Kazan works; the name they’re making for themselves seems to be as a duo that tells intimate, small-scale stories. Hopefully they continue this side of their partnership.
Whether Wildlife is a movie you need to rush out to see is a question of just how interested you are in these actors and this kind of story. There’s no denying that the “trouble in the mid-American family” genre gets at least one decent-to-great entry almost every year, and that it’s well turned-to by many writers and artists who want to play on cultural dissonance. It has been this way for a half-century. Even then, in the 1950s, artists emphasized the broken nature of that arrangement. For as long as we have American movies, it may just function as the timeless setting for single-house social dramas. Wildlife, though, is another good — perhaps great — entry. It never aims to be about anything more than Jeanette, Jerry and Joe but is captivating in its own right.