Wildlife (2018) ☆☆☆(3/4): A commendable directorial debut by Paul Dano

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As a little period drama film about American middle-class suburbia during the 1960s, “Wildlife” is more distinctive and engaging than expected. While its specific sociocultural subject is not a particularly new territory considering many other previous films such as “Revolutionary Road” (2008), the movie works as a calm, thoughtful human drama packed with small but rich details and nuances, and it certainly deserves all the praises it has received since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in last year.

Set in the early 1960s, the story of the movie is about one middle-class family who has recently moved to a suburban area of Great Falls, Montana. While Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) works in a local country club, his wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) takes care of their domestic matters like any middle-class married woman during that era, and they have so far lived fairly well along with their only son Joe (Ed Oxenbould), who has not been yet fully accustomed to their new environment and is often silent and awkward in front of others including his parents.

On one day, there comes an abrupt change into their seemingly stable daily life. Jerry gets fired just because of a minor trouble with the manager of the country club, and he soon becomes quite morose and despondent while privately nursing his hurt feelings. Although he is later notified that he may get re-hired, he flatly rejects this opportunity just because of his wounded pride, and he continues to spend most of his days outside his house without no particular plan on what to do next.

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As Jerry virtually abandons his role as the breadwinner of his family, Jeanette and Joe try to adjust themselves to their changed circumstance. As a former substitute school teacher, Jeanette tries to find any teaching position to be filled, but she comes to work as a swimming instructor instead. In case of Joe, he gets a part-time job at a local photography studio, and we subsequently see him working at the studio along with its benevolent owner, who generously hires him despite his lack of skill and experience.

Meanwhile, Jerry finds himself drawn to a certain type of job. Many people have been hired for the firefighting efforts against a forest fire raging in nearby mountains, and he is willing to work there despite high risk and low wage. When he tells his family about what he is soon going to do, Jeanette is not so pleased about her husband’s decision, but he soon leaves without looking back, and now Jeanette and Joe will have to live without Jerry for several months at least.

Steadily maintaining its somber ambience, the movie calmly observes Jeanette’s resulting confusion and frustration mainly through her son’s viewpoint. While she tries to keep on as usual, Jeanette cannot help but feel lonely and frustrated day by day, and then she finds herself getting involved with some older guy who is willing to provide her stability and companionship. At first, Jeanette introduces him to her son as someone who can kindly help them, but it does not take much time for Joe to realize what is going on between his mother and that man – especially after when he and his mother have a dinner at that guy’s big house.

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Of course, the third act of the movie veers to the territory of melodrama as Jerry eventually returns (is that a spoiler?), but the adapted screenplay by director Paul Dano and his co-writer Zoe Kazan, which is based on the novel of the same name by Richard Ford, firmly sticks to its non-judgmental position while also regarding its three main characters with considerable empathy and understanding. While we come to understand Jerry’s impulsive need for change, we also come to emphasize with Jeanette’s unhappiness and Joe’s anxiety, and the movie did a deft job of presenting all of them as complex human beings with desires and needs.

Furthermore, Dano draws excellent performances from his three main performers. Carey Mulligan, who has been always engaging since her breakthrough Oscar-nominated turn in “An Education” (2009), does not disappoint us at all as giving another fabulous performance to remember, and she is quite convincing especially during several crucial scenes where her character struggles with her tricky emotional situation. While his role in the film is less substantial than I thought, Jake Gyllenhaal gives a solid supporting performance, and he and Mulligan never take any wrong step whenever they are together on the screen. As another important part of the movie, Ed Oxenbound, a young Australian actor who previously appeared in “The Visit” (2015), holds his own place well between his two adult co-performers, and I like how his restrained but sensitive performance subtly conveys to us whatever is churning behind his character’s passive façade.

“Wildlife” is the first feature film directed by Dano, who has been mainly known for his impressive acting career full of interesting films such as “There Will Be Blood” (2007), “12 Years a Slave” (2013), and “Love & Mercy” (2014). Like Bradley Copper in “A Star is Born” (2018) or Jonah Hill in “Mid90s” (2018), he shows another side of his talent here in this film as skillfully handling story, mood, and characters, and the overall result is surely another notable directorial debut of last year. While his achievement may be modest on the whole, he did a lot more than merely showing his potential as a filmmaker, and I think we can have some expectation on his promising filmmaking career.

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