Like so many other actors before, Paul Dano jumped into directing in WILDLIFE, adaptation of a novel by Richard Ford. The actor of BLOODY OILHowever, he does not act in the film but is content to manage, from behind the scenes, a very talented trio of actors (four, actually) in an almost camera drama that, if it weren’t for the fact that you know it would be based on a literary piece, you might as well think of it as a theatrical adaptation.
It is a simple and universal story, although its location in time and space is very precise. Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould) is a shy and sensitive 14-year-old boy who lives with his parents in a small Montana town in 1960. His mother Jeanette (a Carey Mulligan who draws all the resources from her acting repertoire) she has stopped working and is a housewife. Jerry, his father (a more content Jake Gyllenhaal) works as a sort of orderly at a golf club. They are financially fair but seem happy. Or the closest thing to that, considering the bleak place and the circumstances.
But one day Jerry is fired from work and everything changes. His self-esteem crumbles, he can’t find or seem to even want to find another job, and family harmony is broken, something that especially hurts Joe. The mother starts working teaching swimming and even the boy helps by collaborating in a photography house, but Jerry is still depressed. Until one day, in an act between conspicuous and almost suicidal, he offers to go to work for months containing the forest fires that occur hundreds of kilometers away. The salary is bad, the risk is high, but Jerry decides to leave anyway. Perhaps it is a form of escape that he does not know how to express otherwise.
WILDLIFE it will focus, from then on, on the survival of mother and child. The little boy misses his father and does not understand very well what happens to his mother, who very soon leaves the responsible housewife look and begins to go out with people, to dress well and put on makeup, to return very late, drunk, or not to return to the house, and things like that, as in MAD MEN but in a provincial town. The point of view, however, will always be on Joe, who follows with fear and pain the events, both that kind of de facto divorce at a distance that his parents go through and the increasingly erratic attitudes of his mother.
Beyond the story, what is striking about Dano’s debut is that, at the same time, it is very theatrical and very cinematic. The first has to do with his long scenes, his intense and thrown performances (especially of Muligan, a storm of emotions but also of tics, especially in a long scene of a dinner / date with a businesswoman played by Bill Camp) and the way in which the plot unfolds from indoor conversations.
But on the other hand, every time the film opens to the city and its surroundings, Dano’s staging is neat and careful (the photograph is by Diego García, collaborator of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Carlos Reygadas, among others), with a Edward Hopper aesthetic of empty spaces, strong color contrasts and a remarkable production design, which transports the viewer to that lonely and somewhat sad place that seems to exist in the middle of nowhere, like the Texas town of THE LAST PICTURE SHOWby Peter Bogdanovich, but in strong primary colors.
It is that care of the cinematographic form and the management of time, of looks and silences that make WILDLIFE in a valuable film, beyond its theme that, with its differences, has already been widely explored. The minimalism of the setting can collide with certain interpretative excesses (the Mulligan thing is remarkable, but at times he seems to want to take the film on), but the final balance is positive. Without being an experience as emotionally powerful as it could have been, Dano’s debut is nevertheless a meaningful portrait of a family dissolution at a time when much was still not talked about, a few years before something called “Feminism” will begin to be on the lips of many.
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Online premieres: review of “Wildlife”, by Paul Dano (Amazon Prime Video)