Like a handful of contemporary actors-turned-filmmakers before him, Paul Dano displays a sharp sense for visuals while shepherding multiple strong performances to the screen in his directorial debut Wildlife.
Adapting Richard Ford’s novel with co-writer Zoe Kazan, he also crafts a spellbinding drama that, for roughly an hour, seems heading for something special, only to have the 1960-set story of Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal) relocating his wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and their 14-year-old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould, The Visit) to Montana devolve into a fairly rote domestic drama.
A talented golfer, but not quite wielding professional gifts, Jerry is a fascinating character and by far the film’s greatest asset. Witnessing him relegated to grounds crew work at the local country club, become miffed once he’s fired for being too personable with the clientele, and then refuse to accept his former employer’s offer to take him back yields dramatic riches and one is eager to see how his inner conflicts affect those he loves.
Viewers find out soon enough when Jerry decides to go off and help fight the nearby raging forest fires, but while his exodus appears to set Wildlife on a trajectory to even deeper, more complex emotions, the film suffers from his absence.
The lack of development for Jeanette and Joe up to that point quickly proves problematic, and attempts to have the mother-and-son duo carry the dramatic load play out inconsistently.
Bizarrely enamored with wealthy local businessman Warren Miller (Bill Camp, Love & Mercy), Jeanette’s risky actions are semi-believable based on Jerry’s wishy-washy history that’s led to multiple moves, as well as her lone statement after his departure that their romantic life has evaporated as of late, but her mindset pivots so suddenly that it’s difficult to accept.
Furthermore, the openness with which she carries out the affair in front of Joe feels somewhat preposterous based on her previous behavior, and her shift to stream-of-consciousness dialogue also adds to the film’s growing disjointedness.
Meanwhile, Joe’s friendship with a female classmate and his after school job at a photography store are barely developed, and primarily serve as distractions before his mother’s next random decision.
Though seemingly a shortcoming of the source material, Dano and Kazan opt not to tweak Jeanette’s arc so it can breathe onscreen, but potent moments nonetheless arise and the wonky characterization can’t stop Gyllenhaal and Mulligan from achieving something close to excellence.
Even fresh-faced Oxenbould manages to wring sufficient pain, yearning, and optimism from a fairly vanilla part, yet try as he and his onscreen parents may, Wildlife never manages to fulfill the promise of its legitimately great first half.
Grade: B-minus. Rated PG-13. Now playing at Grail Moviehouse
(Photo: IFC Films)