‘WILDLIFE’ stars Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Ed Oxenbould in the directorial debut of Paul Dano who also co-wrote the screenplay with Zoe Kazan. Based on the 1990 novel of the same name from Richard Ford, the story explores a family that has their unity tested when the father loses his job and refuses to take it back out of pride. He leaves his family for an undetermined period to take a low-paying gig fighting fires. This takes an unusual mental toll on his wife, leaving their son caught in the center of it all.
I have always thought Paul Dano was an underrated actor. I think he continually brings the best out in his roles, and over his career he has made some lasting impressions on a variety of different films. So, I was naturally intrigued by what his debut as a director would look like. Add in skilled names like Mulligan, and Gyllenhaal, and the potential to me was high for a gripping emotional drama. This story did manage to resonate with me much more than I was expecting. It was unassuming. It also let the narrative progress without the addition of overly melodramatic scenarios, and fluffy dialogue for cinematic purposes.
It gave off the impression of being a peek inside the troubled home of a small family and for that aspect the realism of the subject-matter was able to shine like it should have. The turmoil this family is going through could happen to any family and it plays out much like that. With grounded, raw emotions, and not the routine theatrics. The father Jerry played by Gyllenhaal has some issues inside his head. He isn’t content. He doesn’t feel good about this place in life. It isn’t because of his family, but more so to me it was because of the course his life took and a lack of meaning as a result of it all in his eyes.
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Then we have his wife Jeanette, played by Carey Mulligan. A woman who hides her worries to put on a warm, strong front for her husband, and even more to be supportive. She cares for her family to the point she quit her career to be a stay-at-home mom, and a wife that was there to support her husband. When Jerry leaves, she breaks emotionally with anger and resentment taking center stage resulting in some erratic behavior.
This leaves their son Joe, played by Ed Oxenbould stuck between a young couple having a marriage crisis. He is well aware of what is happening to his parents despite their reassuring him that all is fine. Joe doesn’t have any place to go and with his parents not sheltering him, he hears and see’s things no child should. All of which were compelling moments that seeded some strong dramatic implications which had me completely invested.
The performances from Mulligan, Gyllenhaal, and Oxenbould were top-notch and each shined in their role giving their characters exactly what was needed for the tone of the material. Gyllenhaal was extremely capable as usual. He poured a somber intensity into the performance to perfectly capture a man struggling to find his place in the world. When needed he was also effortlessly able to hit the emotional energy like a light switch and it was subtle but riveting to watch. However, despite the flawless delivery of Gyllenhaal it was Mulligan, and Oxenbould that stole the spotlight with two authentic performances that provided layers of heartfelt sincerity and a refreshing frankness to their characters.
I was absolutely compelled by the performance from Mulligan. She truly captured in essence what the whirlwind of emotions a person in her place could possibly experience in coping with these issues. Let alone without a friend, or family member to lean on given they were new in a small town. The human brain processes stress in stages at times and this was excellently captured throughout the story-line and through the skillful delivery from Mulligan. She was in some instances a different person as the days passed and this evolution was thought-provoking and captivating to see play out. There were times I felt sorry for her, and times I was angered by her actions as a mother, and either way I was completely intrigued because I could understand her reactions.
One of the strongest aspects of this film is that it gives you three characters you can invest in for a variety of reasons. These characters will also connect with different people. With some it will be in the progression of Jerry as the father. Others will wrap their attention around the path that Jeanette goes through as she falls apart. Then some like myself, will connect with young Joe being stuck in the middle as his parent’s relationship crumbles. I thought the performance from Oxenbould was flat-out fantastic. He felt comfortable in this role. He very much felt like a kid, but he also had a maturity to him that created a level of awareness which came off as natural to a relatively grown-up kid in his position of being exposed to many adult scenarios.
Joe’s parents treat him very well as a mother and father. They are also very open with him and while that sounds like a good thing, this story also captures some of the drawbacks to that family dynamic. He see’s his mother at her most vulnerable point and doesn’t comprehend the issues his father is dealing with and why he would leave them. Throughout this film I was constantly wondering what he was thinking and how he was processing things. Something no other person in his family seemed to wonder. He was forced to grow up much faster than others. He was put in many adult situations and the delivery from Oxenbould captured a range of emotional expression from sadness, to remorse, to anger, and empathy for his parents.
The direction from Dano was well-crafted and he showed a great eye behind the camera. The techniques at first-glance seem simplistic. But during many scenes Dano was able to capture the weight and the dramatic impact of the story-line with his camerawork. Many settings and backdrops were excellently captured to showcase both the beauty and the seclusion of the region, which effectively pulled me into the story with the characters. I would have liked possibly more backdrop on this family. But more so because I connected with each of them and wanted to know more about them prior to where the story enters on their lives.
But the script does build enough substance through the dialogue and with some knockout work from the cast, this film was a success. It was interesting and peeled back many subtly dramatic layers. It was a time-period piece, but the family dynamics feel very much modern in many aspects. Creating an intimate look at a normal family going through normal issues that provides a little something for everyone and I highly recommend it.