Wildlife Review | NYFF 2018
PG-13: For thematic material including a sexual situation, brief strong language, and smoking
IFC Films, June Pictures, Nine Stories Productions
1 Hr and 44 Minutes
Dir: Paul Dano | Writers: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould, Bill Camp, Jake Gyllenhaal, Zoe Margaret Colletti
When I was 14, my then minimum knowledge of film began to expand. It was growing at an exponential rate where I was able to step out of my personal comfort zone of studio movies and into indies. I was able to note what an indie movie was and the film that opened my eyes was “Ruby Sparks”. It was one of my favorite films of 2012. I thought it was an incredibly well-written romantic comedy. It was written by Zoe Kazan who played the eponymous character with Paul Dano as the lead male. Because of that film, indie movies began to appear on my radar and I lowkey became a Kazan/Dano stan in the process. They’re adorable and make great work together. Now they’ve made their second movie together with Dano in the helm and, just like “Ruby Sparks”, it's nothing short of brilliant.
A boy witnesses his parents' marriage falling apart after his mother finds another man.
Despite “Ruby Sparks” being a romantic comedy, you have to remember the surrealness of the premise hit too close to home by the third act. This is a full-blown drama, but that personal familiarity is still present and internally lingers in you. This is a family drama with a familiar family dynamic, but instead of becoming a melodramatic and schmaltzy mess, Dano handles it with visceral care.
The film is centered on an American family in the early 60s who, strangely, all have the initials J.B. They’re new to the state of Montana and they’re starting life anew again. The son Joe Bronson (Oxenbould) is on the football team, but he’s benched all the time. The mom Jeanette Bronson (Mulligan) stays at home. The dad Jerry Bronson (Gyllenhaal) works as a shoe shiner and janitor for rich people at a country club. All that completely shifts when Dad is fired by his bosses over his kindness towards others and then decides to go fight wildfires to prove his manliness. From there on, the family dynamic spirals out of control and those family values start to burn.
The cinematography done by Diego García is just magnificent. I love the wide shots where they would pan from Joe’s point of view to whatever he’s looking at. He would react to what he’s seeing halfway through a shot and it’s a slow pan that makes you interrogatively guess what he is looking at. There are plenty of shots like that where Joe’s reaction keeps you guessing until the final frame. Not many movies are set in Montana. The last movie that was set in Montana was “Nebraska” where Bruce Dern and Will Forte traveled from Montana to Nebraska. So, seeing the state presented like this is magnificent.
The first act is paced well where we see the daily lives of the three lead characters and each tiny event building up to the pivotal story direction. It never centers on a singular family member for too long.
When Jake Gyllenhaal exits, the film becomes the Carey Mulligan show. Her performance is dominant and the overarching bulk of the story. Gyllenhaal is great as always and Oxenbould is fantastic, but Mulligan steals the show from beginning to end. If there is anyone who deserves a Best Actress nomination, it is definitely her.
Right when Jerry leaves the door, Jeanette puts on her Destiny’s Child and turns into an Independent Woman.
She goes from typical 1960s mom to woman who is forced to take charge in order to keep everything together. It’s as if she’s in “The Great Gatsby” again, but instead of reprising her role of Daisy Buchanan, she’s Myrtle Wilson. That said, she delivers an exceptional performance that never goes over the top and stays grounded. You don’t agree with the majority of the decisions she makes, but you can understand where she is coming from. That also goes for all of the characters where you don’t root for their actions as we are witnessing a failing marriage, but you understand what their actions are rooted in.
The film is rated PG-13 and is very mature, but the only reason this isn’t R is because the story is displayed primarily from Joe’s POV. Like Joe, there is a fine line of innocence to all of the slow destruction that occurs around him. He’s the character that you sympathize with the most since he has to endure his dad’s toxic masculinity and absence, and then his mother’s recklessness that slowly delves into promiscuity. Joe is the audience’s avatar for he reacts to situations that happen outside of his control and you feel sorry for him. He sees his entire world fall apart firsthand and we witness it through his eyes.
For a directorial debut, Dano does an excellent job by providing great filmmaking and a powerful cast who are all downright amazing, and the screenplay he and Kazan adapted is even more so. The film is truly accurate as it depicts the depressing realities of life, primarily the lost spark of your love that will emotionally hit too close to home if you’re either going through a rough patch in your relationship or if you’re a child of divorce. Regardless, you will feel the impact of the narrative and it will stick with you long after the film ends. The last scene is just so moving and depressing that it’ll hit you with a wave of:
I needed more Jake Gyllenhaal. Honestly, when Joe leaves, the film takes a pivotal shift and part of you wonders: “Hey, what was Jerry doing in the mountains? I would like to know.” There is a clear, obvious reason why there aren’t many scenes of him after he leaves, and that’s because it primarily becomes Jeanette’s story of independence through the eyes of Joe. Personally, I’m salty there wasn’t much Jake Gyllenhaal, but when he returns on screen, he makes up for his absence with an incredible performance.
Damn, it feels like it was just yesterday that I saw Ed Oxenbould star in “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad, Day.” Now, his voice has gotten deeper and his muscles are buff and I feel old. It's like when Zachary Gordon grew up as he was doing the Wimpy Kid movies. What is the cause of this?
Oh, yeah. Puberty exists. With that said, Oxenbould delivers an authentically nuanced performance that drives this story. As I mentioned, this story is told from Joe’s perception and he perfectly captures the childlike nature this character needed to have. He’s never bratty nor over the top. He’s just right. It's great to see him again in a movie and I’m eager to see where he will go next.
Graced with Dano’s direction, an accurately moving script provided by he and Kazan, and nuanced performances, “Wildlife” is a mature family drama that will emotionally break you into crippling pieces as slow as the lead characters’ marriage.
Rating: 4/5 | 86%
Super Scene: Family Portrait
“Wildlife” hits theaters October 19th