- Review by Oisín Walsh
Wildlife is a gem of a film. A directorial debut from Paul Dano based on the novel by Richard Ford, it is a calm, composed tale that succeeds in engaging you from start to finish. There is no flashy technical work and a lack of pretentious dialogue. Wildlife, is a well-crafted, subtly acted and solidly paced piece of storytelling.
The film is set sometime in the 1950s and follows the Brinson family, Jeanette, Jerry and their son Joe as their seemingly unremarkable but comfortable homelife begins to unravel. We see many of the scenes through the eyes of the son Joe. A more sympathetic teenager I have never seen, he is almost entirely without temper, hard working and cares about both of his parents equally, demanding nothing of them.
The cast deliver spot on performances. Carey Mulligan is convincing and sympathetic as Jeanette, a woman who is unsure of her place in the world. Likewise Jake Gyllenhaal is capable of earning the audience's support and understanding despite making a number of questionable and sometimes selfish choices.
The plot moves forward with a gentle efficiency. The characters and setting are established very quickly and clearly so that not only do you understand their motives but you are truly able to feel for this family as their lives begin to change. The family are relatable and their downfall is tragic. Montana as a setting is also sublime. Every image of the wide countryside is stunning but never overshadows the action that is taking place within them.
The film never becomes overly melodramatic. There are a number of moments where the actors could indulge themselves in a dramatic monologue, lamenting the radical turns all their lives have taken but this doesn’t happen, at least not to an outrageous degree. When Jeanette remarks on her lost youth, it feels natural. When Jerry refuses to take his job back after being fired, we are frustrated by his choice while, at the same time able to admire his integrity. The characters are written in such a way that their more dramatic moments don’t feel staged and slot neatly into the wider conversations.
Dano, as a director makes use of imagery very well. In following the story from Joe’s perspective we see what he sees. Everything feels very immediate. Instead of asking if his father has been forced to sleep on the couch, Joe runs into him in the middle of the night watching TV and his eyes drift over to a blanket and pillow laid out on the couch. There are several small moments like this throughout the film and though they are very simple, they make for very effective storytelling.
This is an impressive film but admittedly it is not one which will win favour with everyone. To some this story may seem plain, uneventful and maybe even boring. In many ways they would be right, the story is simple and basic. However, it is the way in which the story is told that makes this film feel fresh and engaging. I expect Paul Dano will find great success as a director in coming years, if Wildlife is anything to go by.