The fracturing of an American family in 1960 is at the center of Wildlife (based on the novel by Richard Ford), the superbly crafted and assured directorial debut of actor Paul Dano. While it would have been easy for the first-timer to fall prey to the pratfalls of many actor-turned-directors to overstate, underline and bold emotions and feelings, Dano’s restraint keeps the drama from veering into melodrama like a pro.
The Brinson family are on their third move to a third state in as many years. This time Great Falls, Montana. Husband and dad Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal, in a solid, unfussy performance) loses yet another job, this time as a groundskeeper of a swanky golf club for co-mingling with club members too much. “I’m personable! I’m just too well-liked,” he says to his son Joe (Ed Oxenbould, a great find). Back at home wife Jeanette (a brilliant and career-best performance from Carey Mulligan) maintains a face of stringent support for her husband even as she pushes him to find other work, even if it’s ‘below’ him. The façade starts to tear as Jerry’s pride overrides his ability to make good decisions and Jeanette shows inklings of wanting to untether herself. Jerry even refuses to take his old job back when they offer to rehire him. Instead, he up and joins a volunteer group to fight a massive wildfire that is introduced early and exists as background and subtext through most of the film.
In the middle of all of this is our protagonist, Joe. At 14-years old, he’s a smart kid but shy. He’s in football at school because his dad wants him there (the opening scene is them throwing a football around) but Jon doesn’t want to. He’s clued in that his parents aren’t getting along but, as any kid of divorce will say, wanting his parents to stay together is always the hope and dream.
When Jerry calls from the fires, Jeanette refuses to let Joe answer the phone. The separation is not only physical (‘Your father and I aren’t intimate, you’re old enough to know that,” she tells Joe) but geographical – out of state, out of mind. But just as quick as Jeanette is to give Joe the benefit of adult knowledge, she’s also quick to snap “You don’t know anything, you haven’t done anything,” at him. At no moment though does Jeanette come off as cruel or mean. There is a resolute truth to her biting comments that are of a woman who’s lived with a filter on her entire life and now it’s gone.
While asking for a secretarial job for herself one afternoon, Jeanette happens upon a job teaching swimming to kids and adults at the local YMCA. She befriends an older, wealthy gentleman named Warren Miller (a truly great Bill Camp, one of our best working character actors) and the friendship begins to take a turn into something else. There is a moment earlier in the film, when Jeanette gets the YMCA job, that she walks down the street past a movie theater playing Butterfield 8. Tiny echoes of Elizabeth Taylor’s call girl having an affair with a married man whisper through Jeanette and Warren’s relationship, all of which are on full display of Joe, much to his horror.
One of Dano’s great successes here, and credit also to his partner and co-writer Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick), is keeping this family drama from veering into sentimentality or from becoming too dark. It’s an extraordinarily difficult balance made especially impressive that he’s a first-time director as the normal pratfalls that often plague actors-turned-directors simply aren’t there. It’s sparse but detailed, richly acted but never over-played. This is a deeply humane story without heroes or villains that resonates with its honesty and top-notch performances.