BFI London Film Festival: Wildlife

Directed by Paul Dano
Starring Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould, and Bill Camp
Screening at LFF October 13th, 14th and 15th 2018

by Joanna Orland

Small-town America in the 1950’s promised a certain lifestyle for families, with the man working to provide while the woman would tend to the home and children. For patriarch Jerry and his wife Jeanette, this idealized life is not enough, and their dissatisfactions bubble underneath their reserved facades. As Jerry loses his job, he uses it as an excuse to run away to fight the wildfires of rural Montana, leaving Jeanette home alone with their teenaged son Joe. Jerry’s time away from the family is the catalyst Jeanette needs to re-examine her life and make changes. Against convention, she takes on work, takes up an older man and all the while unravels from being a sane and responsible mother.

Slow and thoughtful, Paul Dano’s directorial debut Wildlife borders on dull. The sensation of a 1950’s woman trapped in domestic life against her will aren’t fully realized in this telling, as the setup shows very few cracks in Jeanette’s disposition, and as soon as Jerry leaves, she goes off the rails far too erratically, far too quickly, far too easily. When she descends into this madness, she becomes annoying rather than sympathetic. There are some hints of her past and longings from the dialogue during her breakdown, but the switch is too sudden and too extreme. Not that Jerry is exactly the best catch; too proud, too stubborn and rather fond of the drink, but her transformation feels highly disproportionate to his. Especially as she’s initially depicted as a caring and good mother, when she becomes as irresponsible and volatile as she does, it’s hardly conceivable.

With that in mind, it’s worth noting that the film focuses primarily on Joe, and would therefore be largely told from his perspective. Perhaps Joe doted all too much on his parents, until his father’s absence released his mother’s inhibitions, giving him the space to only notice these failings now for the first time in his young life. Ed Oxenbould gives a sensitive performance as a boy who loves his parents, in spite of their obvious flaws.

The pacing, dialogue and dated turn of phrase make Wildlife a difficult film to engage with. Decent acting and directing carry it through, proving that Paul Dano is an actor with ambition to do more, and has the know-how to do so. While he’s inarguably a great actor, jury’s still out on if he could be a great director.


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