Paul Dano, talented actor acclaimed for his remarkable performance in Paul Thomas Anderson’s tour de force There Will Be Blood and a successful collaboration with a variety of auteurs, including Richard Linklater, Paolo Sorrentino and Denis Villeneuve, has just made his first step towards a career on the other side of the camera. His directorial debut, Wildlife, reflects the emotive insight he has so far clearly demonstrated in his acting work, while proving him capable of executing his own creative vision on screen.
The film takes its time to grow on the viewer. The first scenes, suggesting a conventional family drama, seem somewhat unconvincing. There is a sense of tentativeness in the manner the inexperienced helmer/screenwriter handles the story, revealing itself in his excessive reliance on the actors’ input for establishing the filmic narrative. Thus the initial home idyll sequence, rich in gestures of parental encouragement and approval directed at the teenage protagonist, has an artificial ring to it, as it tries to make up for the script’s flaws by cramming too much feeling in too little content, putting at risk the viewer’s suspension of disbelief and their further trust in the film’s premise. However, once the story gains pace, the writing becomes more and more consistent and false notes less frequent, as Dano allows his actors to focus on developing their characters, rather than on filling narrative gaps.
Adapted from Richard Ford’s novel of the same title, Wildlife, co-written by the director and his partner Zoe Kazan, is set in 1960s’ Montana ravished by seasonal fires. 14-year-old Joe (Ed Oxenbould), the only child of Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), watches his seemingly perfect family life disintegrate, as his father loses his job at a golf club and, instead of looking for another sustainable source of income, first lingers around letting his wife and son take over breadwinning responsibilities, and next resolves to leave home in order to fight the blaze for minimum pay. His decision triggers a violent reaction from Jeanette, unveiling her long-lasting marital frustration and unfulfilled personal aspirations. Left on her own, she rediscovers herself as a woman and an independent human being, and lets her confused feelings break out of control. Whatever ensues is evidence of her emotional turmoil, which cannot be stopped before it turns the fabric of her former life into sizzling ashes.
Casting judgements on the film’s characters might be easy, yet such an approach would go against the deep humanity of Dano’s work. For the core value of Wildlife lies in the unconditional trust the director bestows upon his protagonists. Instead of questioning their dubious choices, he opts to listen to their voices, letting them express themselves freely through carefully cast and emotionally intelligent performers. Consequently, he unlocks the script’s affective potential by making it truly relatable.
It is evident that the story carries a very personal significance to the debuting director. Narrating it from Joe’s perspective, he assumes the young protagonist’s stance of empathy and understanding towards both Jeanette and Jerry, laced with hope to “keep things together”. “I remember sort of standing in the middle, feeling the ground shake and not wanting things to tip”* – he recalls his own young self in the face of his parents’ crumbling marriage. Thus, the figure of Joe, played remarkably by the Australian newcomer Ed Oxenbould, appears as a creative projection of Dano’s own traumatic experience. The young actor’s sensitive presence, imbued with quiet astonishment at the game-changing events unfolding in front of his character’s eyes, perfectly conveys the uneasy position of an unwilling partaker forced into the role of an observer. A caring and respectful son, Joe can do nothing more than silently despair at his mother’s unpredictable actions stemming from her irrepressible urge to fill the emotional void. Not adhering to current societal norms and adamantly following her self-destructive drive, Carey Mulligan’s mesmerising Jeanette is at once deeply feminine and universal in her extreme vulnerability blended in equal measure with an imposing strength. By contrast, Gyllenhaal’s outwardly explosive Jerry consistently reveals his gentle, unprotected core.
Successful at assembling and effectively guiding his stellar and dedicated cast, Dano has nonetheless managed to avoid the common actor-turned-director’s pitfall of creating a performance-based film, proving capable of using the medium’s specificity to his benefit. He achieved that with support of accomplished cinematographer, Diego Garcia. So far known for a range of low-key, arthouse productions, Dano’s DP exhibits an outstanding aesthetic sensibility, making constructive use of natural and artificial sources of light, while carefully balancing intimate interior shots with open landscape perspective. Expertly translating sentiments of self-induced oppression and a desperate need to break free into disquieting imagery of wildlife going through its eternal cycles of annihilation and renovation, he instills the film with a visual identity of an elusive and volatile, yet self-assured beauty. Garcia’s cinematographic flair finds its ideal complement in David Lang’s evocative soundtrack. Renowned for the score for Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth (featuring Dano in one of the leading parts) and a significant contribution to the Italian director’s masterpiece The Great Beauty, the composer brings into Wildlife the subtlety of ethereal, classical compositions flawlessly conveying turbulent emotions simmering under the surface of matter.
The analogy between the natural world and the insurmountable power of human spirit, so effectively inscribed in the film’s fabric, brings to mind Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows and its spellbinding remake by Todd Haynes, Far From Heaven. The Master, a flawed but nonetheless impressive work of Dano’s mentor, Paul Thomas Anderson, has been frequently name-checked by the film’s creators as another significant source of inspiration, next to Hirokazu Koreeda’s body of work, which, in turn, points to the imposing cinematic legacy of Yasujiro Ozu. Revealing his deep admiration for the Japanese masters, Garcia’s inquisitive and omnipresent camera blatantly stares into characters’ faces, resolutely searching for emotional truth, while not even for a moment losing sight of surrounding textures and colours.
However, perhaps even more importantly, if somewhat less obviously, Wildlife‘s aesthetic draws from the filmic universe of Kelly Reichardt, acclaimed for her slow-paced, reflective and intimate, yet immensely cinematic pictures, such as Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy and, most recently, Certain Women. Unsurprisingly, Dano made a significant contribution to her artistic vision, creating a memorable role of Thomas in Meek’s Cutoff. Reichardt’s northern soul, luxuriating in deep forest greens and infinite land expanses, takes an avid interest in the complexities of human relationships developing on the crossroads of civilisation and the rough, natural world. Her influence is almost palpably present in Dano’s debut, where landscape and human feelings are just as tightly interwoven as they are in her films, forming a relatively simple, yet intriguing tapestry.
Wildlife’s emotional impact builds up gradually, reaching its full potential only at the very end. The final sequence in which Joe poses his parents for a family shot in his desperate attempt to stop time in its tracks (or perhaps even revert its course) by preserving traces of his now foregone childhood on a photo membrane, has a tremendous power of cinematic radiation. Notwithstanding the boy’s hopes to stave off the ultimate collapse of his illusion, Jeanette’s and Jake’s disfigured smiles and mutually avoidant, teary eyes point to the fresh lesion which, if given a chance to heal, will surely leave an indelible scar. Just as nature dies and renovates itself through violent, all-consuming phenomena, in the human world purification occurs in consequence of a sudden emotional outburst. The raw nerve exposed in the process keeps throbbing until it gets covered with new tissue, which, in some cases, may never occur.
Deeply poignant and intelligent, Wildlife attests Paul Dano’s ability to both convey and stir feelings. It is a quietly potent film, vibrating with an immense force akin to the power of obscured, yet irresistible desires and the vigour of a blaze raising from a spark, ready to engulf the whole forest. Those unable to sense it tend to dismiss the picture as an overblown portrayal of middle-age crisis. It does, indeed, take some maturity to notice that life is considerably more complex than such a label would suggest, and Dano, however young, is acutely aware of its intricacies. The high degree of emotional and aesthetic sensitivity he has displayed as a beginning director incites curiosity and sharpens the appetite for what is to come next. Born from a genuinely humanist reflection, Wildlife is a debut of outstanding value. Chances are it marks the beginning of a relevant, impassioned and artistically compelling filmography.
*NPR interview: https://www.npr.org/2018/10/24/660168891/paul-dano-on-wildlife-and-the-different-anxieties-of-acting-and-directing (accessed on 28 Nov 2018)
©Anna Bajor, Tracks & Frames, 2019