As far as his acting career goes, Paul Dano has often appeared to fit the mould of a character actor, going from film to film playing mostly supporting roles of a similar ilk, often portraying characters who tend to be awkward and shy, albeit with a nuance that has resulted in numerous memorable performances. However, in helming his first ever film, entitled Wildlife, Dano has perhaps subverted expectations, resulting in an assured directorial debut that is a confidently made, thoughtful character drama about family life.
A well crafted directorial debut
It isn’t often we see Dano as a leading man, but his ability to take charge behind the scenes and allow his evident abundance of creativity to shine through as a writer/director is hard to fault with regards to Wildlife. The film is set within the stunning backdrop of Montana, where the Brinson family, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and their son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) have recently moved to due to Jerry finding work there after previously being laid off. On the surface they appear to be the typical American nuclear family, Jerry works, Jeanette stays at home and Joe is excelling in high school, but under the surface, rising tensions begin to bubble over that shapes the course of the story, forming a hard-hitting, powerful drama that remains tense and thrilling throughout.
Stylistically speaking, there is equally not really anything to fault, such is the effortless beauty of Montana’s open spaces that Dano has chosen to use as the film’s setting, with an almost minimalistic feeling about the cinematography that is able to capture some dazzling shots with seemingly relative ease. Though the dialogue at times may feel awkward and bizarre, generally speaking the script is a great strength of the film, a strong adaption of Richard Ford’s book of the same title by Dano and his partner Zoe Kazan. The story is allowed space to play out within its 1 hour 44 minute runtime in order to build maximum tension and allow for a rollercoaster final act. Equally, the use of close-ups effectively portrays the characters’ reactions to the events unfolding around them, and a particular trope that elevates the storytelling is using a close-up of Joe where other characters have muted conversations in the background, an excellent combination of camerawork and sound editing that leaves the viewer straining to work out the implications of what may or may not be being said off-screen.
When making one’s directorial debut as an already established actor, perhaps it is easier to cast major Hollywood stars than it would be if you were unknown, and Dano has certainly been able to wield quite an impressive amount of star power for Wildlife. Jake Gyllenhaal, Dano’s co-star in Prisoners and Okja, is a huge draw for the film, once again demonstrating his natural ability to perform in any role, and the range he displays in this particular performance is unlike many of his previous performances. There are times when you feel for Jerry, a seemingly well-to-do father and husband who just wants to provide for his family, but the ability Gyllenhaal shows to switch between the mild-mannered Jerry and the intimidating, loose-cannon Jerry when his life begins to crumble is wholly impressive. Though not present for large parts of the film and perhaps not an Oscar-nomination worthy performance, it is certainly another excellent one in Gyllenhaal’s diverse career.
The real star performance with great potential for at least an Oscar nomination has to be Carey Mulligan’s career best outing as Jeanette, a role which she truly makes her own. Initially Jeanette is a seemingly happy housewife, going about her business whilst Jerry works and Joe goes to school, but when their situation changes and she chooses to go back to work, her character begins a journey of self-destruction that forms the basis for the film’s powerful story. At any time Mulligan’s chameleonic turn as Jeanette is impossible to work out, simultaneously subdued yet unrestrained, with a cold sadness behind the eyes that truly makes her a character the viewer can equally resonate with yet dislike, the hallmarks of an undoubtedly awards worthy performance. Young Ed Oxenbould equally more than holds his own amongst two Hollywood stars, a strong performance as Joe, torn apart by his family troubles, and so early on in a career that should only cease to go from strength to strength given the right casting opportunities.
All in all, there’s not a lot to particularly fault with Paul Dano’s debut feature film as director. Wildlife is thoughtful, stylish and confidently made, featuring two strong lead performances, with Mulligan’s being potentially Oscar worthy and certainly her career best. The story plays out well with the right amount of tension being allowed to build and relying on the characters to convey the powerful story was highly effective. A mere criticism would be the use awkwardly flowing dialogue at points and a score that doesn’t quite match the scene at times, but on the whole is mostly well-fitted to the film. An assured debut that only ceases to enable Dano further creative freedom in any further directorial endeavours.
Words by Elliott Jones