“And there are words,” Richard Ford writes in his 1990 novel Wildlife, “significant words, you do not want to say, words that account for busted-up lives, words that try to fix something ruined that shouldn’t be ruined and no one wanted ruined, and that words can’t fix anyway.” And it is words, and the failing of words, and the language of images articulating the things that words can’t, that interest Paul Dano. The actor’s directorial debut, adapted from Ford’s novel by Dano and Zoe Kazan, is a calm yet doleful film whose every frame is carefully composed, every camera movement contemplated and subtle. Its characters are given ample time and space to speak their minds (or to not say what’s on their minds), and they surprise themselves with decisions that are as unforeseen as they are inevitable. Wildlife is at once loquacious and laconic, a film in which simple words hold unspoken and unequivocal power, and the space between banal utterances become chasms.
Set in the 1960s, the film follows the teenage Joe (Ed Oxenbould) and his parents, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), after they relocate to Montana, where the fissures of their lives widen and threaten to engulf the family. Jerry is a proud and stubborn former golf pro, a caring and involved father who wants very badly for his son to be a star football player, despite the boy’s apparent athletic ineptitude, and at the top of his class, despite Joe needing his mother’s help to complete his homework.
Jerry disdains mediocrity, perhaps even fears it, and when he loses his job as a caretaker at the local golf course, having overstepped his bounds with customers, he decries his bosses for their imbecilic decision. “I’m just personable,” he sighs, crestfallen, to his son. “That’s what people like about me.” When they call back to offer him his job back, the man refuses, saying he won’t work for “people like that.” Jeanette, a former substitute teacher turned homemaker, suggests he take a job at the local grocery store, but he won’t bag groceries because it’s “a teenager’s job.” So he decides to enlist as a fireman, for $1 an hour, eventually leaving his family for an undisclosed amount of time in order to combat an inferno consuming a Montana forest.
After Joe runs off to fight the forest fire, Jeanette becomes increasingly self-pitying and cynical, regaling her son with stories of her misspent youth and unfulfilled ambitions. She spits out poisonous comments about Jerry, and quickly falls in love with a car salesman, Warren Miller (Bill Camp), a man who, while financially successful, has little of Jerry’s fervor, or his penchant for misplaced daydreaming. Warren is the other side of the American dream, what with his decadent home and post-dinner cigars—a vision of middle-aged eloquence. And with this affluence, this promise of a “better life,” Warren woos Jeannette, and one gets the feeling she almost wishes her husband would perish in the fire so she could just move on with her life.
Little time is spent establishing the marriage between Jerry and Jeanette: glimpses in the periphery of a hug, a brief embrace, the kind of banter only possible after years of accrued and profound familiarity. And their marriage doesn’t dissolute slowly so much as it burns up, as if doused in gasoline. Dano manages to instill, succinctly, a sense of dread and bitterness into the proceedings, imbuing the film, most of which is perceived from Joe’s point of view, with a forlorn and regretful feeling of loss. One still feels the cloying remnants of love, the ghost of a once-healthy relationship.
In Ford’s novel, Jerry has the artistry of a great golfer, the form and technique, but lacks the ferocity needed to compete at the highest level. He’s fired from his job at the golf course when a patron, to whom Jerry has been giving lessons, claims that his wallet has been stolen, which causes Jerry to crumble and throws his family into crisis. Dano excludes much of that backstory, leaving behind the bones of a character, who’s all the more haunting as a result. This is a testament to Dano’s smart visual storytelling, and to the efficiency and genuine pathos of the screenplay, which elides Ford’s surfeit of details and aphorism-steeped pontification in favor of sparse insinuation.
Dano is aided immensely by cinematographer Diego Garcia, who also shot Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s gorgeously soporific Cemetery of Splendour, and who brings a similar composure and patience to Wildlife. Which is to say that this film eschews the gaudy, show-offy grandiosity of most American independent debuts. Consider a shot early on of Joe watching television while Jerry, out of focus, opens his second beer and looms behind his son in imposing fashion. The influence of Gyllenhaal’s wounded father lingers after he’s gone off, and it’s his absence that fractures the family. Gyllenhaal, restrained and indolently painful, hasn’t been this subtle in years, and he seems to thrive here in a supporting role. Mulligan, meanwhile, is trenchant and calloused as the distant mother who is, after years caring for her husband and son, finally starting to think of her own desires, though perhaps too late. The actress brings a combustible tension to Wildlife, as if Jeanette may burst into flames like the fire that lured Jerry away from their home.
Dano also channels Kelly Reichardt with his patient and placid pacing and heedful, scrupulous, but never airless framing and compositions, cutting infrequently so the uncomfortable gaps in conversations feel treacherous. Throughout Wildlife, Jeanette says things she shouldn’t to her son, uncouth and unfettered things, but it’s what she doesn’t say, or won’t say, that lends the film its muted, aching poignancy. If Dano’s cinematic vocabulary and style feel familiar, his dexterity and generosity with actors is incomparable, and his self-restraint is admirable. Wildlife, a film about the destruction and rebuilding of self-esteem and the self, is utterly devoid of ego.