Paul Dano’s ‘Wildlife’ lacks in vision, voice

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Grade: 2.5/5.0

Paul Dano’s directorial debut “Wildlife” upends the notion of the idyllic family and explores marital tension. Adapted by Dano and Zoe Kazan from Richard Ford’s novel of the same name, the movie tells the story of the Brinson family, which appears to be the quintessential American family. Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal) works on a golf course while Jeannette Brinson (Carey Mulligan) stays at home and raises their 14-year-old son, Joe (Ed Oxenbould). It is 1960 and their lifestyle is typical of the time.

This normality does not last long.

After Jerry gets fired from his job, the floodgates open. Wanting to break out of the housewife mold, Jeannette takes a job at the YMCA. This ultimately upsets the structure of their family.

Jeannette and Joe are used to having to appease the patriarchy. There is a sense that, while these type of outbursts are not uncommon, this one is somehow different.  

Dano and Kazan tackled this adaptation with simplicity — which is about the most daring cinematic choice they make. “Wildlife” is sometimes powerful and other times just boring. The film is not inundated with sappy montages or manipulative music, but sometimes you wish it was.  

This understated approach attempts to allow the audience to put the pieces together for themselves, not spelling everything out for them. But the pieces are oftentimes not even there.

The script leaves too much left to be desired. Sparse dialogue is not necessarily a bad thing, but paired with a minimalistic plot, it does not lend itself to a particularly interesting character study. The dialogue feels too calculated, like it has been vetted too many times by the screenwriters.  It ultimately leaves no space for interpretation and no space for the truth.

The story is supposed to be told from Joe’s point of view, but the first part of the film feels like it is unsure of whose story is being told. Ostensibly, this is Joe’s story, but there are only a few standalone scenes that focus on him, whether it be him in class or at the portrait studio he works at. These scenes still fail to provide a compelling characterization of Joe and seem oddly interruptive in context.

Joe mainly serves as a window into Mulligan’s character. Jeanette is not just the housewife trope in this story — she is the story. While her character’s actions are not always rational, Mulligan manages to anchor the film with her performance, providing a raw humanity to a complex female character — the type of character that can be hard to come by in film. She is allowed to be messy and complicated, and she is never condemned for it.

Jeanette is going through an identity crisis of sorts. In a scene in which Jeanette and Joe are at a diner, an uncomfortable parent-child dynamic that can occur when a parent reveals personal and slightly inappropriate details about their life is showcased. This scene strips away their perfect-parent facade and is a type of interaction that is not usually seen in movies.  It is the true standout scene of “Wildlife,” but the rest of the film does not maintain that momentum.

In his first feature, Dano shows off his technical prowess as a director, but his direction is so airtight that it squeezes almost all of the life out of it. There is nothing bold or distinct about it; everything feels safe, as if he is afraid of making even the slightest mistake. The camera is reluctantly stationary, which leads to a rather dull, bland picture overall.

Ultimately, the audience is left wondering why he chose to tell this story, because it lacks a unique vision. Many interesting questions are raised about who our parents truly are and how much strain relationships can really have on people, but nothing particularly noteworthy or nuanced is added to that conversation. It just feels like another period drama about your average white family.

Contact Julia Mears at [email protected].