The beguiling short-story feel of Paul Dano’s intimate family drama makes us share the experience of a teenager whose parents are ‘going through a rough patch’ that may break up the only security he’s known. The performances of Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan and especially young Ed Oxenbould are low-key and high-intelligence; each seems a study of people we know, or people we might be. The observance of what rural America was like in 1960 Montana (or many places, even now) is acute. Highest recommendations.
The Criterion Collection 1031
2018 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 105 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date May 26, 2020 / 39.95
Starring: Ed Oxenbould, Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan, Tom Huston Orr.
Cinematography: Diego Garcia
Film Editor: Louise Ford, Matthew Hannam
Original Music: David Lang
Written by Paul Dano & Zoe Kazan from the book by Richard Ford
Produced by Paul Dano, Andrew Duncan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riva Marker, Oren Moverman, Ann Ruark, Alex Saks
Directed by Paul Dano
Several moments in this show catch young Joe Brinson standing with his mouth slightly agape, astonished that his mother and father are behaving in ways he’s never seen before. It’s a universal experience, being confronted with the one’s parents’ human flaws. A stage adaptation would use interior monologues, and a nostalgia piece might give us the boy’s thoughts in voiceovers from a safe distance in the future. Wildlife instead plunks us into the middle of a first-person drama, where simply observing the characters is a highly rewarding experience.
I was just listening to a radio discussion of the future of moviegoing — what will movies be like after the pandemic days of ’20-’21? (I’m trying to be optimistic.) My personal problem with most new movies is that they lack the variety of subject matter. I miss genre pictures of all kinds, even the grandiose superproductions of days gone past, the kind of theater-fillers that cost too much yet made one feel like a movie was an event.
Then again, if the changes to the industry bring forth intimate pictures as good as Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan’s Wildlife, I won’t have much to complain about. This tiny indie production is more than the sum of its talented contributors, who we learn pre-existed as longtime friends and companions. I gave it a shot because I like the two stars, and ended up engrossed by the simple truths in the drama. Movies of this kind often try to create added conflict and relevance by dragging in outside issues, or melodramatic events. Either that, or the narrative slows down to a ‘mood piece,’ whose significance must be gleaned by reading some insider review. Nope, Dano and Kazan’s adaptation of Richard Ford’s novel is fully accessible, with a beginning, a middle and a satisfying finish. It remains true to its imperfect characters, without going for a sensational hook to increase its commercial profile. It’s a genuine, self-contained drama that ‘amounts to something.’
This is a fine directing debut by Paul Dano, who plunges us willing viewers into a reality back before mass media saturation. It’s 1960, but the rootless Brinson family gets its news from an old radio that looks twenty years older. Their financial situation is easily expressed in that their TV is on the fritz, and there is no discussion about getting it fixed. Dano’s show is short story-ish in the best way. Plenty happens, but reactions and feelings are what count.
The story is told mostly through the eyes of the teenager Joe Brinson, played by the amazingly credible young actor Ed Oxenbould. A year or so shy of driving age, Joe is a little unformed. But we can see the idealistic glow in his eyes. He has an open mind and a trusting soul, and he believes in the positive values he’s been taught. Joe is also the most stable member of the Brinson household. When he perceives that his family situation is strained he takes steps to help out, quitting the football squad that has no use for him, and going to work for the local photographer. In a few weeks Joe has acquired a skill more marketable than anything his father has put together in his adult life.
Joe may have come into the family very early, perhaps even before marriage. Dad Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal) is in his early ‘thirties; he’s rather aimlessly moved his little family to Montana, where they’re now outsiders in an established, insular community. Jeannette Brinson (Carey Mulligan) copes as best she can. Just as young Joe isn’t particularly welcome on the football team, Jerry has found work only as a groundskeeper at the local golf course, and he’s been deemed unfit for even that demeaning job. We get the feeling that Jerry has talked or behaved his way out of unexciting jobs before.
Wildlife has unlimited identification angles. Jerry’s predicament will resonate with those of us that have at one time or another found themselves unequal to the task of dealing with adult responsibilities that can’t be ignored. This being the early ’60s, life can squeak along somehow so long as a family can find some kind of paying work. Jerry has no major vices, but unemployment reveals a definite morale problem behind his friendly smile. He wasn’t doing very well before, and now he drinks too much and avoids doing anything constructive. It’s painful to act the good father in the face of such failure.
Pretty Jeanette Brinson might be all of thirty. She has lost some of the spirit of her marriage but not her faith in her personal possibilities. Jeanette doesn’t nag, but she does become angry when Jerry avoids the reality of their situation: “Maybe I should go back to work.” She shows courage dressing up to please, facing hard rejections, and never showing her fear. When things get worse with Jerry, Jeanette forms a personal relationship with Warren Miller, a middle-aged businessman (Bill Camp). It’s a quiet, dangerous rebellion — she’s reaching out for something that’s missing.
Jeanette feels justified because she believes that Jerry is simply running away. The state is hiring volunteers to battle an enormous forest blaze; Jerry takes the low-to-no pay and the hardship and danger just to escape. Jeanette considers this a form of abandonment and begins to ‘change her role,’ to go her own way. Jerry tries but can’t work up a full rage over her new independence. Sitting with Joe, all he can do is shake his head: “Boy. Boy! Well, ain’t this a wild life, son?” Jerry knows that his anger only proves that Jeannette was right about everything. They might not officially break up, but things aren’t going to be the same.
Most of this is seen directly through Joe’s eyes, without distancing effects to tell us ‘this happened to me long ago.’ Joe can no longer look to his dad for guidance and reassurance, and begins to find his own character. The most wrenching scene is an uncomfortable dinner party at Warren Miller’s house, where Joe sees what his mother’s extramarital friendship is becoming. Does he know his own mother any more? The scenes between Jeanette and Joe are played for truth, not emotional fireworks, and are wrenchingly real. Ed Oxenbould brings qualities to the part that immediately strike one as authentic. He has a bit of a young Claude Jarman, Jr. or Brandon de Wilde in him, but with even less of a Hollywood veneer.
Paul Dano avoids trendy mannerisms in his direction. He doesn’t stretch out lonely scenes for minimalist effect, and neither does he hype the high-country Montana locale or impose an external excitement with editing. The pace never goes slack and his dramatics stay clear: the kid is special, the father can’t cope with his loss of status, the mother goes wherever her inner desperation takes her. All seem to be natural processes; things happen and words are said that permanently change relationships.
At one point Jeanette takes Joe on a superfluous, impromptu side trip up the hill to the firefighting camp. She doesn’t know why — she doesn’t even try to contact Jerry. They get near what is clearly a real, dangerous fire, which in the high forest country is eerily beautiful. When we Americans feel boxed in, momentary freedom can be attained if there’s gas in the tank. Jeannette is grasping for straws, reaching out for something to show her the way.
If this were an old Susan Hayward movie, the forest fire would symbolize natural passions that can’t be controlled — Hayward played overblown dramas of that kind several times. But the title is not ‘Wild Fire,’ and the blaze moving toward us is just what it is, nothing more. No symphonic music score is imposed to magnify its significance.
The show was filmed in Montana, with a side trip to Oklahoma to avoid severe winter weather. Our first view of the wide valley and another high angle showing the meager downtown area are breathtakingly sharp and detailed. The feeling of being someplace specific is made acute when Joe has to walk to school just as snow is beginning to fall. Joe is too young for a license, but likely learned to drive as soon as his dad felt he could handle a car. His exploration of Warren Miller’s home makes makes Joe self-conscious about his own situation — the rented Brinson house probably came furnished, with that non-functioning TV. The Brinsons likely own little more than what could be carried in their old station wagon.
Marriages never go bad in exactly the same way, but it takes less than one might think to make one fall apart. People just change under stress. Jerry can’t be what he wants to be for his family. Jeannette feels herself hollowing out inside, emotionally. Is compatibility and happiness so dependent on financial security? I’d have to say that in our society, that’s pretty much the case — 60% of Americans have no money reserves and few choices if things go bad. Marriage vows and unconditional love don’t always win out when the bills aren’t paid.
But each new generation of individuals is a new chance. We can tell that Joe has what it takes to be a winner, if no terrible trauma comes along to squash his spirit. By the finish, he’s even the one to make his mom and dad behave like a family, just long enough to take a photo.
Carey Mulligan knocked most of us out with her terrific performance in An Education. That was nine years before Wildlife. Ms. Mulligan’s ‘baby fat’ teen look is gone. Her Jeanette has the lean look of a woman who needs more and has nothing to stop her from looking for it. The two men in her life will have to tend for themselves on occasion.
Jake Gyllenhaal has been better than good in most everything I’ve seen him in; he was extra-chilling in Nightcrawler because his reprehensible character struck me as bone-true to a number of amoral opportunists I’ve come across in forty years on the fringes of Hollywood. His Jerry Brinson is off-screen in quite a bit of Wildlife, perhaps going through the trial he thinks he needs to get his head together.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of Wildlife is the expected handsome encoding of this carefully made, very special drama. The show has an impressive film-like look. On a web page for the Arri Alexa digital camera, cinematographer Roger Deakins says that the Alexa’s image-recording properties exceed the capabilities of film: “This camera has brought us to a point where digital is simply better.” The same camera system was used on Roma. That assessment betters by far the earlier Red Camera system, which Steve Soderbergh loved even though various cameramen complained of its deficiencies.
The extras for Wildlife show what looks like an ideal moviemaking situation. The artists appear to hold the producing reins as well. The show lists a lot of producers, but the core creative team appears to be very small, almost intimate. Dano had previously worked with Gyllenhaal, and Mulligan had worked with Kazan. In the interview pieces (on the actors, the production, the editorial) little or no mention is made of legal issues, money deals, or financial pressure from above. True, this isn’t a show with huge sets or a large cast, but the setup seems idyllic for filmmakers with ambition and something to say. One must conclude that this ‘filmmakers in control’ project succeeds simply because of the judgment and character of filmmakers. Paul Dano admits to his editor that he over-prepared on this his first movie. He produces a notebook where he wrote down his reactions to every take: “Too smiley.”
Fans of the source book also can see a post-screening discussion between Paul Dano and author Richard Ford. How often have we seen an author willing to share a stage with somebody that’s adapted their work?
When Wildlife was new, it wasn’t exactly a sleeper hit. I mainly wanted to see it because of Carey Mulligan. Scattered reviews stated that something different and special had been produced, but didn’t convey the immediate personal connection the film makes. If future film storytelling includes more movies like this, I think we’re going to be okay.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: New interviews with director Paul Dano, screenwriter Zoe Kazan, actors Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal, cinematographer Diego Garcéa, production designer Akin McKenzie, and costume designer Amanda Ford; New conversation on the film’s postproduction with Dano, editor Matthew Hannam, and composer David Lang; Film at Lincoln Center conversation from 2018 between Dano and novelist Richard Ford about the film’s source material. Insert folder with an essay by critic Mark Harris.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: June 20, 2020
Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson