Wildlife

 

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With his directorial debut, Paul Dano sustains a masterful state of unease in this tale of familial disquiet in 1960s’ Montana.

    Wildlife

Parental pique: Jake Gyllenhaal

 

Richard Ford is a quintessentially American writer and, in its way, this adaptation of his 1990 novel is a quintessentially American film. It recalls Giant, The Last Picture Show and The Tree of Life in its expansive landscapes and dysfunctional family dynamic. More surprising is that it heralds the directorial debut of the actor Paul Dano, whose time on Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood was undoubtedly a cinematic influence. Paul Dano was also a child actor and it is through the eyes of the 14-year-old Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould) that this tale of familial disquiet unfolds.

 

Joe and his parents, Jerry and Jeanette, have recently relocated north from Idaho to the town of Great Falls in Montana. Joe has enrolled at a new school and his father works at the local golf course. However, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) is fired from his job for “over-stepping the mark” with the rich clientele, for his “personable and affable manner,” in Jerry’s words, for being “too well liked.” Plunged into depression, Jerry skulks around the house, drinking beer and smoking, while Joe and his mother decide to look for work themselves…

 

The time is 1960 and there is still an aura of innocence in the air, coupled with a feeling of imminent doom as the Cold War gathers apace, mirrored in the wildfires that are engulfing the surrounding woodland. So Jerry decides to sign up as a firefighter, abandoning his family in the name of a higher cause. And they don’t know when they will see him again.

 

The film starts in an idyllic moment of calm, as Jerry plays baseball with his son prior to dinner. For a while, the face of Joe’s mother is obscured, as if she were just a minor cog in this particular domestic wheel, but gradually Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) emerges as the dramatic backbone of the film. A former substitute teacher of maths and science, she is one smart cookie and does what she has to, to support the status quo. Then, after a fruitless search for a position as secretary and receptionist, Jeanette lands a job as a swimming instructor. And in perhaps a calculating move, she befriends one of her pupils, Warren Miller (Bill Camp), who happens to be one of the wealthiest and most influential men in Great Falls. For Joe, it is another step away from the harmony of his former life.

 

Under the meticulous, confident direction of Dano, the film acquires a deeply disturbing air. Another descent into the nightmare of suburban Americana, albeit without the caustic comedy of George Clooney’s Suburbicon, the film is powered by the smallest details. Be it the gentle male coughing that emanates from Jeanette’s bedroom in the middle of the night, or the almost imperceptible untruths that the characters start telling each other.

 

Unlike many an actor cutting his directorial teeth, Dano resists the temptation to show off, instead laying out his tale in a punctiliously straightforward manner. Thus we are drawn into the interior lives of these ostensibly ordinary souls, so that when the Brinsons start lying to each other, the transgressions genuinely rankle. It helps that Dano has surrounded himself with such first-rate talent, from the consummate eye of the cinematographer Diego García to his actors. Jake Gyllenhaal, the perfect American Everyman, takes on a disturbingly haunted air in his later scenes, while Carey Mulligan is entirely believable as the model American housewife starting to misplace her moral compass. Consequently, we truly empathise with Joe’s crumbling universe and begin to suspect the horrors that are to come.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Cast: Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould, Bill Camp, Zoe Margaret Colletti, Darryl Cox.

 

Dir Paul Dano, Pro Oren Moverman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riva Marker, Ann Ruark, Alex Saks and Andrew Duncan, Ex Pro B. Ted Deiker, Zoe Kazan and Eddie Vaisman, Screenplay Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan, Ph Diego Garcia, Pro Des Akin McKenzie, Ed Matt Hannam and Lou Ford, Music David Lang, Costumes Amanda Ford.

 

June Pictures/Nine Stories Productions-Kaleidoscope Entertainment.

104 mins. USA. 2018. Rel: 9 November 2018. Cert. 12A.