** ½ (out of 4)
In what looks to be the beginning of a trend, several well-known actors have recently decided to turn their energies to directing. At the start of October, for one, Bradley Cooper offered a messy, self-contradictory, and lazily nostalgic remake of A Star Is Born. Two weeks later, Jonah Hill recounted a familiarly “gritty” coming-of-age story in Mid90s. Now, IFC Films has released Paul Dano’s Wildlife, a film about a boy named Joe (Ed Oxenbould) who’s forced to witness the gradual dissolution of his parents’ (named Jeanette [Carey Mulligan] and Jerry [Jake Gyllenhaal]) marriage.
Like Cooper and Hill’s works, Dano’s first foray into directing definitely has a lot going for it. For starters, the film features top-notch acting. Oxenbould effortlessly embodies his character’s helpless innocence, while Mulligan ably conveys the repressed agony of a ’50s housewife. Stylistically speaking, moreover, the cinematography provides ample testament to Dano’s visual acumen. With its noticeable, Ozu-esque aversion to movement, the camera illustrates just how trapped the characters feel. And by dint of their length, the film’s long takes engender an atmosphere of creeping yet inescapable hopelessness, a tone that neatly complements the bleakness of the narrative itself.
For all the potential it displays, however, Wildlife ultimately suffers from one fatal flaw. As we quickly come to see, the film’s defining feature is its foregrounding of Joe. Troubled couples, after all, have been the subject of works as varied as L’Atalante and A Separation. But while most such films concentrate on the couples themselves, Wildlife wants you to think about the secondhand effects that marital strife has on kids. To wit: in every scene that depicts tension between Jeanette and Jerry, Joe prominently hovers in the background. Moreover, these scenes often make use of point-of-view shots from Joe’s perspective, a technique that directly compels us to identify with him.
Thanks to these stylistic features, then, we realize that Jeanette and Jerry’s troubles have some sort of an impact on Joe. Yet the irony of Wildlife is that it’s not really interested in what that impact looks like in practice. Dano never explores how family troubles affect the parts of Joe’s life that have nothing to do with family. In fact, apart from the occasional reference that the narrative makes to Joe’s part-time job and friendships at school, the film’s conception of him almost entirely revolves around the observational role that he plays vis-à-vis his parents. Because of this, for most of the story, Joe is not so much a human being as a passive, one-dimensional shell, a mere tool that Dano exploits to lend a vague sense of pathos to Jeanette and Jerry’s falling-out.
To hear Dano tell it, Wildlife is supposed to be about “a kid seeing his parents change and their marriage break – and through his parents’ failures, having to grow up.” With his expert camerawork, Dano easily fulfills the first part of that statement. Yet due to Dano’s total lack of interest in Joe as a person, the film’s attempts to realize the second part largely fail, consisting of abstract generalizations that provide precious little insight into Joe’s unique personal development. Compared to A Star Is Born and Mid90s, then, Wildlife is certainly the most memorable of this season’s actor-turned-director debuts. But after watching this, you can’t help but feel that Dano missed the chance to make something much, much richer.
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould, Bill Camp
Running Time: 104 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13, “for thematic material including a sexual situation, brief strong language, and smoking.”
Produced by: Paul Dano, Alex Saks
Written by: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan
Directed by: Paul Dano