It has been quite a year for actors making their directorial debuts. We’ve had the successful crop of Bradley Cooper and Jonah Hill with their respective A Star is Born and mid90s, and now we have prolific performer Paul Dano, popping his director’s cherry with Wildlife.
Wildlife is a family drama adapted from the 1990 Richard Ford book of the same name. The story takes place in 1960s Montana, and follows young Joe (Ed Oxenbould) who lives with his seemingly happy father and mother (Jake Gyllenhaal and Carrie Mulligan). However, when his father gets fired from his job at the local golf club, the family relations begin to strain.
From the get-go, one can see that Dano is incredibly adept at capturing anxiety. When Joe’s father is getting laid off, the camera stays fixed on the boy’s face. In fact the camera is used in this film to slow things down, be it by keeping the frame still, or by having steady and slow tracking shots. Dano chooses to show certain scenes from perspectives we rarely see in conventional movies; he focuses on the reactions of his actors receiving dialogue rather than the characters speaking. This causes the audience to feel a certain tension and pressure; as we’re excluded from whatever the characters are seeing.
In terms of conveying that anxiety, Oxenbould proves to be a revelation, exchanging layered yet transparent quips and stares with the two movie stars playing his parents. Gyllenhaal is in the film in a more testimonial role, while Mulligan shines more in a bolder role than her previous outings. In Wildlife, Mulligan plays a louder character (in contrast with her wispy roles in Far From the Madding Crowd, The Great Gatsby, and Mudbound) that nevertheless attempts to hide an incredible insecurity.
Viewers should be warned, however, that the film requires patience. The crumbling of the family is structured in a trickle-down fashion, so that subtle details indicate the progression of the story. The experience reminded me of the experiment with frogs and boiling water, where a frog would jump out if dropped in a pot of boiling water, but if placed in a pot of cool water, and have the temperature turned up slowly, the frog would die. Dano achieves his character arcs in much the same way, with proper emotional pay off at the end.
Wildlife is a character study that takes its time. If you’re in the mood, Dano will prove to be a deft storyteller. He certainly proves capable of extracting strong performances from his cast, and as a result delivers a solid directorial debut.