REVIEW: Wildlife

Can we just greenlit a “Keeping Up with the Brinson’s” show now?

In 1960s Montana, Jerry and Jeanette Brinson have their marriage challenged when Jerry’s pride leads him to take a low-paying job fighting forest fires subsequently distancing himself from his family, leading Jeanette down a downward spiral, seen all through the eyes of their young son, Joe.

When you see a film featuring Paul Dano, you will most likely see him as “one of those guys”; always a familiar face but never quite the protagonist or big Hollywood name. You’ll probably notice him mostly for films like 12 Years A SlaveLooper, Prisoners, Okja and more notably, There Will Be Blood and Little Miss Sunshine. It’s only truly been in the real hard to find indie films like Swiss Army Man and Ruby Sparks that Dano has taken lead role and impressed immensely multiple times. However, it would seem the young actor’s time taking smaller indie roles has served the man well as Dano’s directorial debut, Wildlife, is easily up there as one of the best films of 2018 without a doubt.

Having worked with genius auteurs like Paul Thomas Anderson, Steve McQueen, Denis Villeneuve, Bong Joon-ho, Rian Johnson, Richard Linlater and Spike Jonze amongst many others, its not difficult to completely identify how Dano has managed to compile such talent behind the camera for his film Wildlife. This film is insanely well directed and structured that it almost feels like it was made by a seasoned director who’s been delivering film after film for the last decade and has literally just reached his temporary crowning achievement. If Wildlife proves anything, its that Dano has maybe even more talent behind the camera as he does before it.

Wildlife - Still 1
(Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival, 2018)

I was not sure what to expect going into Wildlife other than the fact that last November in 2017 I had seen a film about firefighters called Only the Brave which despite all its merits was ultimately a rather unremarkable effort that never left as much of a lasting impression. I was afraid that Wildlife would fall into a similar category of being a technically good film but never being quite re-watchable to any extent. However, Wildlife really stood out as something special and a lot of it had to do with the cinematography. Now I’m not entirely familiar with what past works cinematographer, Diego Garcia, has had to his name, but working in tandem with Dano, Garcia seemingly constructed a thorough, insightful dramatic image with every moment on screen during Wildlife. With every review I ramble on and on about how film is meant to be a visual medium and that the narrative should rely more on images than on words, yet with Wildlife that concept of visual storytelling is taken to a whole other level. Literally every frame in this film tells a story of its own; every single image, for as long as it holds or as far as it moves, tells the shortest of most richest narratives in a heartbeat. Nothing in Wildlife feels like a mistake as every image adds another layer, building and building without skipping a beat, only to instead structure its own poetic rhythm that propels itself to one perfect end shot – one feasible conclusion that in retrospect could have never curtain closed in any other way. Wildlife is absurdly perfect…

… and its also jarring. It almost hits in an unexpected manner of how perfect a film can come from a man who has never directed before. I know that very recently both Greta Gerwig and Jordan Peele with their feature films, Lady Bird and Get Out, won acclaim for being outstanding directorial debuts, but Wildlife, at least in my eyes, is an even greater achievement from a first time filmmaker. You would never think how quiet this film is until after it ends and yet, when it does, you feel like it has spoken to you and allowed you to experience more on the emotional spectrum than any big budget talking heads film ever could.

Wildlife is a film that tells the story of a family’s disintegration through the eyes of a child and yet the filmmakers expand on such a plot to the point it feels as explosive and as untameable as a divorce would realistically feel for a child – like a wildfire raging in the distance, baring down upon one’s home with the threat of complete disintegration. I may have never read the original novel Wildlife is based on from Richard Ford, however even the title comes off as a stroke of genius. Purely based off my interpretation, life is indeed wild, almost as equally wild as a wildfire and the film demonstrates this inability to correlate such a sense of calmness and stillness in the most aggressive of times. Ideas on masculinity and femineity do battle in a war to determine at first the label of breadwinner only to then devolve into something more selfish and sinister, almost a skirmish to confirm one’s independence from the other. The motif of fire becomes so powerful, devouring the entirety of the film, that even in the feature’s briefest of calm moments, when Jerry enrols for the fire fighters, Jeanette’s short-lived career as a swimming instructor is pushed aside, as fire ultimately evaporates the significance of water.

Wildlife takes the whole narrative of a brave man going off to war for the benefit of his family to only return to welcoming arms, and flips said narrative on its head. Whom appears like the protagonist, Jerry, aligns fire fighting to the duty of a solider, believing it to be the way of the man to turn ahead and face the impending doom that threatens his family… only that’s not the case. Jerry is more a coward, not acting on his masculinity but instead acting out of it; he runs away, scared, to the frontlines because his role of the man of the house is compromised and so in order to reestablish his manliness he joins the closest thing to war he can find. And that’s it – for the majority of Wildlife, Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jerry hardly physically appears despite his presence being clear throughout the runtime. Instead the film relies on Carey Mulligan’s Jeanette to carry the audience from Jerry’s exit to his possible return or death (I’m not going to spoil it, I promise) – and that is where the film excels extraordinarily.

First off, I love Gyllenhaal and believe him to be outstanding in this film with one of the best performances of the year, but Mulligan, woah, can she act. The narrative of man going off to war as his family waits faithfully for his return is warped and contorted through the lens of Mulligan’s Jeanette. The character arc she moves through from loving mother to distressed wife to troubled flirt to big ball of mess; the ranges that Mulligan goes through in Wildlife are phenomenal. I mean she is incredible to the point she not only gives the best female performance of 2018, but genuinely one of the best performances of the decade by far. I have always loved Mulligan in films like DriveShame and Inside Llewyn Davis but here in Wildlife she’s like a female Daniel Day-Lewis and its insane to watch her evolve over the course of the film. And the best part is how her character is not the typical housewife who awaits her husband’s return, but instead this complex being who moves through shades of abandonment, fear, confusion, independence, dependence, guilt, shame, strength and literally everything and anything you could imagine a real person to feel in hard, conflicting times. It’s almost like with every frame comes a different expression and by gosh does Mulligan assert herself to the challenge. I remember specifically a single moment when she paces beneath her clothes line whilst in a non-specific conversation with her son truly showcasing the actress in her best form. Just terrific stuff, truly.

Not to mention also how deeply the film relies on remaining completely based on the perspective of Ed Oxenbould’s young Joe. Other than appearing quite like the spitting image of young Paul Dano, Oxenbould turns out a performance nearly on par with his peers doing a damn good job for a kid who has to share the screen with actors like Mulligan and Gyllenhaal. The best part about the child perspective as well would have to be how murky and shady the audience’s viewing of all the events are from young Joe’s eyes. Joe never gets a great insight into his parent’s slow derailing marriage as does the audience never get the full picture on what may be exclusively happening to Jerry and Jeanette personally. The camera always works to cut away from everyone but Joe when something overly dramatic occurs as, due to the actor’s incredible facial expressions and movements, never do the audience feel like they’ve totally missed anything and instead feel as though they are in on the drama through subtle means. Interesting also to note how Jeanette informs Joe in the film that the reasoning behind his name is that the title of ‘Joe’ is as plain as they come and could be used for him to be literally anyone – like an Average Joe. So it makes sense how strongly the filmmakers imprint Joe as the audience’s window to all the going-ons – we, the audience, are Joe because we all have felt the pain and confusion behind family drama and the troubled details of our parent’s relationship. The fact we can relate assures how powerful a piece of art Wildlife truly is.

So gaining technique from previously collaborated directors, Dano tunes out with Wildlife an impressive introspective look at masculinity and femineity in family during 1960s America. Even pushing against themes of the American dream at points, the most praise I can give Dano is that his work with Paul Thomas Anderson on There Will Be Blood and Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris on Little Miss Sunshine seemingly never concluded past those films and have now been revealed to have bled into Wildlife. Easily noticeable are the thematic and technical connections Wildlife has to the period piece on American male greed in There Will Be Blood and shattered imperfect family murals in Little Miss Sunshine; and although Wildlife may not be on those film’s levels of modern classics, Wildlife does indeed ensure a bright directorial future ahead of Dano that will promise a filmography to rival some of the world’s biggest name directors, period.

With a side note on how well the script was constructed from not just Dano but the immensely talented Zoe Kazan and also the effectiveness of the minimally used score, Wildlife was a surprise and a half that guaranteed 2018 not to be a complete waste of cinema’s time. I truly loved this film and would recommend it to not only audiences but the damn Academy Awards – if this film is not even nominated for one Oscar, strike maroon, we’ll have a riot on our hands.

Wildlife is, in fact… LOST ART


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