Wildlife (2018)

19 Nov

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I write this in confidence, to what few readers I have—Paul Dano’s directorial debut “Wildlife” made me cry.

There were numerous times in attending the cinema in the past decade in which I’ve felt immense emotions toward films that contained genuine human-interest drama. But so few of them actually brought tears to my eyes. With “Wildlife,” I couldn’t help myself. With the amount of domestic stress that occurs in this 107-minute hard-hitting family drama, I couldn’t help but watch in sadness as the central situation went from bad to worse.

Three elements were essential to making “Wildlife” so emotionally devastating and effective as a result:

  • Dano, who’s best known as a capable character actor, proves to be a capable director as well. He shows confidence in dramatic storytelling—as cliché as this may sound, it feels as though he’s directing from the heart. (Dano also wrote the script, along with his long-time girlfriend Zoe Kazan, who wrote “Ruby Sparks,” one of my personal favorite films.)
  • The acting is excellent from all three principal performers—Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan, and juvenile actor Ed Oxenbould (from “The Visit”—thankfully, he’s grown a little since his prepubescent white-boy-rapper-wannabe persona in that flick). If the acting didn’t work as well as it does here, I might have had a different reaction to their plights.
  • The story for “Wildlife” is told from the perspective of Oxenbould, who plays a teenage boy who watches his parents’ marriage fall apart gradually and harshly. It’s hard not to feel anything for this poor kid as he tries to keep everything together in his unpredictable household.

“Wildlife,” based on the novel of the same name by Richard Ford, is set in early-1960s Montana. Gyllenhaal, Mulligan, and Oxenbould play a “typical” American family of three. Jerry (Gyllenhaal) works at a golf course where he chats up with rich folks (to the annoyance of his boss). Jeanne (Mulligan) mostly stays at home and helps raise their teenage son Joe (Oxenbould), who plays football even though he’s not particularly interested in it. This is a time when America was changing, men work, women stay home and cook dinner, and football was practically a requirement for growing boys. Of course, things are destined to change for this family. (I think it’s been common knowledge at least since the 1980s that the idea of the quintessential American Family is never “typical” or “normal.”) Jerry loses his job, which causes him to reconsider his point in life. So, to help out, Jeanne gets a job at the YMCA and Joe gets his first employment, working at a photo lab. But that doesn’t help anything, as Jerry decides to leave the family temporarily to assist in fighting a nearby wildfire, leaving an emotionally distraught wife and a confused 14-year-old son…

Watching the film a second time, I got the sense that this has happened before, that this family has suffered misfortunes in another town before this film began and tried to start over again. The more I study the character of Jerry, the more clear it is that he’s not a man who takes the hardships of life lightly and he just wants what he thinks every other man in his position has. (I think the 1987 horror-thriller “The Stepfather” featured a similar character…but let’s not go there.) Many of the decisions made by the key characters are dumb, selfish ones, but they’re made because these people are each in a state of misperception. I understood where they were coming from, and that’s why while a part of me wanted them to just recognize the good things in life, the rest of me simply wished that they would.

Because the acting was on-point, because Dano gave his actors breathing room to let the scenes play naturally, and because the results felt effective and real (with no melodramatic errors to get in the way), I felt strongly for the characters and the harsh realities they faced. By the end of the film (which results in a brilliant final shot that indicates ambiguous hope for the future), I couldn’t help but wish they would end up finding their footing in the changes brought upon them. And that’s what got me to cry—it’s as unlikely as it is likely. “Wildlife” is one of the best films of 2018.

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