FilmColumbia: Brilliant ‘Wildlife’ abounds with metaphorMore Info
Chatham, N.Y. — “I feel like I need to wake up, but I don’t know what from or to” says the mother to her son in Paul Dano’s brilliant new film “Wildlife.” I have been eagerly awaiting this film, as it is the directorial debut of Dano, one of the best actors of his generation. He also co-wrote the script with his partner, Zoe Kazan. We just saw two of his films this weekend at the FilmColumbia festival honoring Brian Cox. Dano was brilliant in his first role as the young boy in “L.I.E.”, and in the more recent film “The Good Heart.” Dano has made a career out of playing sad and vulnerable souls. He chose the 1990 Richard Ford novel “Wildlife” as he felt it captured the “feeling that the family is one of the greatest sources of love in our life, and because of that it’s also one of the greatest sources of pain.”
The story takes place in the 1960s in Big Sky, Montana, over the course of a week. During that time, the father, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), loses his job as a golf pro at a local country club due to being “too personable.” The domino effect this causes in his picture-perfect family is tremendous. His wife, Jeanette, (Carey Mulligan, who has never been better) has had a sunny disposition so far keeping her small family together. They have picked up and moved several times as Jerry has consistently lost his jobs. As Jeanette said, the places keep getting “colder and colder.” All this strife is being noticed by their sensitive son, Joe (a fantastic young actor from Australia, Ed Oxenbould), as he watches his family slowly disintegrate.
When Jerry decides to take off for a job containing the fires 40 miles from town, his tightly wound wife sheds her usual demeanor. She needs to reclaim the woman she was before she got married and had a child. She wants to feel that everything is still possible — being a beauty queen, a rodeo girl, a woman who is keenly desired. Her inappropriate behavior consumes her son as he is being forced to watch her flirtation with a local older wealthy man in town. Warren is a cynical and somewhat repulsive man who still has a kind side to him regarding Joe. This difficult role is played with masterful effect by the great character actor Bill Camp, who was so memorable in “The Night Of” as the indefatigable Detective Box.
The title “Wildlife” can be construed in many different ways—Joe’s empathy for the animals that were losing their homes due to the forest fires (his mother said that pitying others serves no purpose), or the way everyone (especially Joe) silently watches each other; Dano uses the silence in a very naturalistic way. Joe particularly observes his parents in a way that may remind many of us how we first felt when we saw any hint of a possible fracture in our families.
The metaphors abound. The marriage is burning up and the mountain fires are a worrisome part of the Montana environment. Joe takes a job at a local photography studio and composes photos of families putting on their fakest smiles. In fact, the film ends with him doing just that with his own family. What I appreciated was that we weren’t left bereft at the end but somewhat hopeful that all three will be able to figure out their own lives.
Some mention must be made of the awesome cinematography — the magnificent Montana vistas and the smoke coming off the mountains are stunningly captured by the great cinematographer Diego Garcia.
This film has been very well received (96 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) and was nominated for the Golden Camera Award at the Cannes Film Festival for best first feature film. It also won an award that I’ve never heard of before but totally agree with: the Heartland Film Truly Moving Picture Award. This festival’s goal is to “inspire filmmakers and audiences through the transformative power of film.” When this movie comes to your local theater, I encourage you to go see it. It’s an American tale but a universal one, and embraces that unsettling feeling of seeing your parents as fallible, complicated people.