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Wildlife review: caught between two fires

Reading time: 4 minutes

Paul Dano’s directorial debut, Wildlife is an early 2018 Christmas gift.

Set against the social revolution of the mid-sixties, teenager, Joe Brinson (“You could be anyone with that name”, played by Ed Oxenbould) tries to deal with his mother’s unexpected behaviour after his father leaves to tackle the wildfires swallowing up the nearby mountains.

The fat is in the fire

Dano establishes the strain in Jerry and Jeanette’s (played expertly by Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan) relationship – showing a subtle but clear lack of intimacy between the pair. Their contrasting opinions regarding what Joe should do with his life shows how different they are.

Both Jerry and Jeanette take completely different approaches to parenting – Jerry encouraging Joe to make friends, go to school and enjoy football, while Jeanette feels (although doesn’t explicitly voice) that Joe should get a job. She tells him things a mother probably shouldn’t tell her 14-year-old son: “Your father and I haven’t been intimate in a while. I think you’re old enough to know that now.”

These differences are hidden behind the facade of forced family conventions, with Jeanette disclosing to a stranger that she and her husband ‘had decided it would be better to stay at home with Joe.’ But these conventions start to crumble when Jerry loses his job and out of pride, refuses to go back when the company realises its mistake. Not wanting to do a ‘teenager’s job’ and feeling shame when his own son quits football to get a job to support them, he flees his responsibilities to ‘quiet the hum in his head’. But the second Jerry leaves to put out the fire that’s threatening his town, a fire starts to burn in his place, threatening his family – and the thick smoke affects Jeanette immediately.

Joe keeps the home fires burning

From this point, all conventions are null and void. Jeanette starts to treat Joe like a roommate – telling him stories from her youth, with a fixation on reminding him that she and Jerry were people before he was born. She starts to wear different outfits and ask for Joe’s opinion. This gets worse when she begins an arrangement-like relationship with filthy rich Warren Miller. Joe sees things you’d never want to see your mother doing. And the most heartbreaking thing is, he still stands by her, trying to see the best in her darkest moments, to keep his family together. Joe finds himself caught between two fires: trying to save his mother while bringing his father back home.

Because of his parents’ actions, Joe grows up overnight, becoming both a conventional husband and wife: cooking meals, going to work and fixing things around the house.

A powerhouse script

The strongest part of Wildlife is its screenplay – adapted beautifully by Dano and Zoe Kazan (Emily from The Big Sick). Each utterance is dripping with meaning, no words are wasted. This could be put down to Richard Ford, author of the Wildlife, the novel this story was adapted from. 


Supposedly when approached by Dano for permission to adapt it he said:

“I am grateful to you for your interest in my book, but I should also say this in hopes of actually encouraging you. My book is my book, your picture, were you to make it, is your picture. Your movie maker’s fidelity to my novel is of no great concern to me. Establish your own values, means, goal. Leave the book behind so it doesn’t get in the way.”

Dano’s gift of a (rare) blessing from the owner of the source material gave him the freedom to make a unique story about a pretty run-of-the-mill topic: relationship breakdown. 

The sharp screenplay is enhanced by three of my favourite performances of the year. Gyllenhaal, although not on screen for long, is convincing as a wounded, middle-aged man, unsure of his next move. Mulligan is incredible. Unpredictable, cold, harsh and captivating, she embodies that of a bored, tired, jaded housewife, also unsure of her next step. My only criticism is that they’re both so attractive and youthful, it’s a little hard to believe they have a 14-year-old son. But can they help being so ridiculously good looking? Of course not.

But the star is Ed Oxenbould. Dano’s repeated use of close-ups on Ed’s face shows his range and the motion he’s capable of showing. His well being deteriorates as the minutes pass and by the end, 14-year-old Joe looks more haggard than his guilt-ridden parents. I can’t wait to see what Ed does next.

The verdict

Packed full of passion, metaphors and wonderful cinematography from Diego García, Dano should be proud of such a solid debut. And considering his measured, unique performances in Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood and Prisoners, are we really surprised Wildlife is a success?

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