“There’s a tendency for the media to lionise men’s flaws,” director Paul Dano opined at the recent BFI Film Festival screening of Wildlife. “We don’t do the same for women.” It’s an observation that clearly sits at the heart of his directorial debut. Adapted from the Richard Ford novel in collaboration with partner Zoe Kazan, Dano’s exploration of one family’s breakdown consistently denies us that familiar romanticisation of toxic masculinity – by putting the focus firmly on everybody but the husband. The result is a film that offers a refreshingly urgent feel to a well-trodden narrative trope.
Set in the early 1960s, Wildlife focuses on the Brinson family, newly arrived in Montana in (we come to learn) a long line of similar relocations urged on by the well-intentioned whims of husband Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal). What opens as a postcard-perfect presentation of Mid-century Americana soon breaks down due to Jerry’s pride, forcing wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) to reassess – and then revoke – the past fifteen years of marriage, all while 14 year old Joe (Ed Oxenbould) looks on.
And looking on is exactly what he does, as together Dano and cinematographer Diego Garcia frequently fill the frame with Joe’s face, forcing us to watch as it subtly breaks and hardens in response to his parents’ slow separation. Whilst much has been made of Carey Mulligan’s fantastically ‘messy’ performance as a mother painfully rediscovering her sense of self, it’s Oxenbould’s largely non-verbal acting that hammers home the impact divorce has on a well-intentioned child. We’re made witness to the ordeal Joe is going through, discovering that his parents are not only far from infallible but wholly incompatible, all while lacking the independence to dodge the damage their mutual self-destruction takes on his own life.
Dano and Kazan are acutely aware of the many ways we, consciously or not, still expect women to ‘carry the load’ men cannot, and they continually test our sympathies of Jeanette throughout, putting her into highly questionable situations and essentially letting Carey’s emotive performance run free (though she never, ever strays into melodrama). In contrast, Jake’s Jerry is a very comfortable role for the actor, and it’s to the film’s credit on several levels that he is effectively cut out of the drama for the majority. When Jake is on-screen, however, he never devolves into that trite trope of the bullying husband, making the writers’ critique of the marital dynamic all the more effective.
A rather ‘neat’ ending, coupled with the film’s highly-measured cinematography sometimes stepping over into staid, do pull Wildlife back somewhat, but the haunting performances from mother and son – enabled by a strong script – leave me excited for what Dano and Kazan will do next.