Packing up his acting shoes to make his directorial debut, Okja’s Paul Dano partner’s up with his real life other half, Zoe Kazan for the tragic 1950’s family drama Wildlife. Co-writing the screenplay with Kazan (an adaptation of Richard Ford’s novel) for a delicate and complex insight, focusing on the breakdown of the family unit through the eyes of a shell-shocked son.
This family unit consists of Dad, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), Mum, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and son Joe (Ed Oxenbould), an unyielding and loving middle-class 1950’s family. Jerry works at the local golf club providing a hands-on service to its clientele. Overstepping his mark, wagering with the punters, Jerry soon finds himself laid off. With no money coming into the house the cracks start to appear in this once solid family unit.
Jerry spirals into his own depression as he shuffles around town trying to find work but soon realises he wants to do something worthwhile instead of just making a wage. With the bills mounting up, Jeanette finds her personality changing too; faced with uncertainty she finds work as an adult Swimming instructor where she meets the affluent local car dealer and war veteran Warren (Bill Camp). Happy to stand by her husband and fight through this tough period until he finally gets a job spending months away from home fighting Wildfires for a pittance.
The drama is brought to life by the central performances of Gyllenhaal, Mulligan and Oxenbould. Oxenbould plays Joe with astute innocence as he gravely witnesses his Father’s own despair at letting down his family but also struggles with the decision to do something that actually matters. Once Jerry has left for his new job, Joe then faces the turmoil of watching Mulligan’s descent into her own depression, becoming a selfish woman with no regard to what she exposes her son to or even playing the part of a tentative mother.
Gyllenhaal’s absence for the majority of the action means this is a Mulligan and Oxenbould show. Mulligan puts in the performance of her career as this highly contemptible woman who will go to any length to get what she wants no matter the consequence. But that gives this story a major disconnect with its characters. Joe virtually does nothing but slowly come to the realisation that his mother is far from perfect without throwing so much of a teenage temper tantrum. Even Gyllenhaal’s limited time onscreen as Jerry doesn’t build enough of a picture of the man Jeanette could easily forget as soon as he is out of the picture. It conveys very much a feeling of out of sight, out of mind.
Dano’s intricate eye for visual splendour and pained expression is masterful in his creation, however, with nothing to adhere the audience’s sympathy to its major characters it leaves a bitter taste of disdain that dampens down any real fire.
Wildlife is out in cinemas November 9th