My Favorite Movies – Wildlife (2018)

30 Jul

By Tanner Smith

One of my top 20 personal favorite movies is an indie dramedy called Ruby Sparks, starring real-life long-time couple Paul Dano & Zoe Kazan. Kazan also wrote the film’s screenplay, and as much as I like her as an actress (and she does indeed have appealing screen presence–check out The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), I’d like her even more if she wrote more films.

Well, there is another–this one was written by both Kazan and Dano. And Dano directed the film as well. I’ll take it!

Wildlife is an adaptation of Richard Ford’s 1990 novel of the same name. When Dano requested the rights to adapt the novel to film, Ford told him this: “I am grateful to you for your interest in my book, but I should also say this in hopes of actually encouraging you. My book is my book, your picture, were you to make it, is your picture. Your movie maker’s fidelity to my novel is of no great concern to me. Establish your own values, means, goal. Leave the book behind so it doesn’t get in the way.” Dano got his blessing…but he’d never written a screenplay before–lucky for him, his long-time girlfriend Kazan has. (Yes!) So they worked together in adapting the screenplay.

I’ve never read the book. But someday, I’d like to, if only to see how different it is from the film, which I admire a great deal.

Dano proves to be a darn good director too. His passion shows, as does his ability to communicate with his actors.

Set in the early 1960s, Wildlife is told from the perspective of 14-year-old Joe (Ed Oxenbould). (Oxenbould is best known for playing comedic relief in movies like The Visit and “Better Watch Out”–I sometimes have to remind myself this calm, mild-mannered young man is the same actor from those movies.) He and his family live in a small Montana town, where his father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) works as a golf pro at a country club and is very friendly with the clients. But because Jerry refuses to stay out of the way, he loses his job–even when he’s offered it back shortly after, he refuses due to excessive pride. Joe’s mother Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) looks for work herself, and since Jerry won’t look for a new job, Joe gets work too, at a photography studio.

Soon, Jerry leaves the family to help fight forest fires in the nearby mountains. Jeanette is left to care for Joe and the household. But the situation gets more complicated when she starts an affair with an auto dealer named Warren Miller (Bill Camp, one of our most reliable character actors working today), which confuses and worries Joe. Whenever Joe tries to confront her about what he knows is going on, it’s like she doesn’t want to be a mother but a free person now that Jerry’s out of the picture (even temporarily).

Carey Mulligan delivers her best performance here, in my opinion. I’ve liked her work before in other movies and she deserved all the accolades she received recently for her daring work in “Promising Young Woman”–but here, she truly shines. She plays a motherly figure whose natural sweetness dies down when her ideals are suddenly changed and she becomes her own person. Courage? Confusion? Maybe both? Do we shun her for it? No, not necessarily. But she’s easily empathetic. Jeanette is an interesting, compelling character to study each time I watch the film.

Which, of course, means that Mulligan was ignored by the Oscars. Indie Spirit Awards to the rescue yet again! (Mulligan was nominated for Best Female Lead and the film also garnered nods for Best First Feature and Best Cinematography, for Diego Garcia’s stellar cinematography.)

The film is all about Joe coming of age and realizing that his parents aren’t perfect, they make mistakes for their own pride and pleasures, and…he’s either going to grow up into a well-adjusted individual or a mom-obsessed psychotic killer. (But I’m an optimist, so I’ll hope for the former.) The moment that truly got me was when Joe witnesses his father do something insanely rash when he finds about Jeanette’s affair. There’s a long tracking shot of Joe running off in tears. Was this Dano’s blatant tribute to a similar shot in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows? I don’t care–it still worked for me.

OK, so maybe “Wildlife” isn’t wholly original in its depiction of a American nuclear family unwinding, but when it works, it’s still effective. And with acting this good and directing this skilled, I’ll take it.

And I look forward to what else Paul Dano and/or Zoe Kazan will direct/write in the future.

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