Wildlife: Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal are excellent. But Ed Oxenbould is better

Review: Paul Dano channels his literary side in a directorial debut that abounds with aggressive metaphors

Carey Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould and Jake Gyllenhaal in Wildlife. Photograph: IFC Films

Film Title: Wildlife

Director: Paul Dano

Starring: Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould, Bill Camp

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 0 min

Wed, Nov 7, 2018, 11:31

   

If you set any well-read, culturally attuned person before Paul Dano’s directorial debut, they’d almost certainly guess that it was adapted from the work of A Great American Novelist. Those guys loved that swivel between the US’s complacent 1950s and the looming turbulence of the Vietnam era.

Sure enough, early on in the film, when young Joe (Ed Oxenbould) is sitting tensely with Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), his nervous pop, and Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), his apparently assured mom, in their Montanan home, we hear a baseball commentator discuss the 1960 season. Might it be something by Richard Yates?

It’s not just the subject matter. Adaptations of such books tend to reference other American Masters when finding visual correlatives for the prose. You know? Like Edward Hopper. Diego García’s cinematography offers some of the most persuasive variations on Hopper compositions in recent cinema (and we’re never far from such a thing).

By framing the characters in different windows of the same building he presses home their growing estrangement. There’s also a bit of Norman Rockwell, Hopper’s merrier cousin, when Mulligan stands before the colourfully groaning shelves of the local supermarket. It’s not Raymond Carver. Is it?

There’s also the fact that actors do have a habit (we’re looking at you, Franco) of taking inspiration from their favourite book when moving behind the camera. Just think of Ewan McGregor’s recent American Pastoral. It can’t be Philip Roth. It’s a bit too rural. Right?

Here’s another thing. You don’t get this degree of aggressive metaphor in scripts with no literary source. While the family tests its insecure seams, a forest fire looms on the surrounding hillside. Do you give up?

Wildlife is, in fact, taken from a 1990 novel by Richard Ford and, facetiousness aside, it emerges as a beautifully wrought addition to the semi-genre. All three principals are excellent. David Lang’s minimalist score beats the coming changes in persuasive fashion. Just in time, Dano and his screenwriter Zoe Kazan find a way to close off the action with a subtle cinematic flourish. As football commentators say too often, there’s real quality on display.

The action works an interesting shuffle at the beginning of its second act. Like so many American tales of that era, Wildlife follows a man who can’t be manly in the way he desires. Jerry works as a golf pro at a local club, where – for no reason other than chumminess – he occasionally gets too close to the members. He also has, by the cask-strength standards of the time, an only mildly ominous problem with alcohol.

When Jerry loses his job, he starts to show all the symptoms of Angry Dad Disease: he gets snappy, he won’t compromise, he bristles at the notion of Jeanette going out to work. He’s the bad guy. Jeanette is the oppressed realist.

Then Jerry heads off to fight the fiery metaphor and the film turns itself on its head. Maybe Jeanette is an even bigger heel than her husband. Maybe society forces her in that direction.

Assisted by a fine Bill Camp as the town’s sleazy bigwig, the three actors bounce unsettling, queasy energies off one another. Gyllenhaal crumples beneath the weight of social expectations – some reasonable, others less so. Mulligan is at her best when sulking like a cat confronted with a rainy garden and, as he film progresses, she gets more opportunities to wrinkle her snout and droop her whiskers.

But the standout performance may be that of young Ed Oxenbould. What are they putting in teenagers’ cereal these days? You rarely see a bad teen performance and Ed’s – tragically baffled by the immaturity of the chronologically mature – is so persuasive you don’t know whether to hug him or hate him.

Opens November 9th