The opening scene of Paul Dano’s “Wildlife” could be straight out of a Norman Rockwell, with a father (Jake Gyllenhaal) and 14-year-old son (Ed Oxenbould) playing catch and roughhousing good-naturedly in the front yard.
It’s only as the camera lingers that we notice that the lawn is really just a patch of dirt.
Dano’s adaptation of Richard Ford’s 1990 novel is full of moments like this, scenes of seemingly ordinary life that convey an enormous amount of visual information to the attentive viewer. Here’s another one; the father, Jerry, works as a golf pro, and in an early scene his son Joe watches admiringly as Jerry kibitzes with the rich members of the club. Then the members leave, and leave behind their Coke bottles for Jerry to clean up. In an instant, we understand both how Joe sees his father and how the world sees his father.
Written by Dano and his partner, actress Zoe Kazan, “Wildlife” is a powerful and beautifully calibrated film that takes the ordinary story of a family falling apart and turn it into something mythic. Because it is Joe’s entire world, and Dano makes sure we see it crumble through his eyes.
The family lives in Great Falls, Montana sometime in the early ‘60s, in a little rented house they can’t afford. Jerry is charismatic and devoted, but restless, unable to either keep the jobs he wants or lower himself to take jobs he feels he’s too good for. “I got this hum inside my head,” he tells his son. “Need to do something about it.”
His wife Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) tries to buck up Jerry’s spirits, but the charm is starting to wear off. When Jerry goes off to fight the wildfires in the mountains coming closer to Great Falls (metaphor alert), Jeanette grows more and more disillusioned with the idea of him coming back. She begins spending time with one of the town’s richest men, Warren Miller (Bill Camp). Warren is no prince, but he offers the stability and security that Jerry can’t.
Dano is an actor of enormous subtlety (“There Will Be Blood,” “Little Miss Sunshine”), so it’s no surprise that he gets career-best performances out of his actors. Gyllenhaal perfectly captures the frustration and self-loathing of the aging Golden Boy who can’t adjust to adulthood, despite his best efforts. Mulligan’s slow-motion breakdown in front of her son is wrenching, although she never loses our empathy.
Much like Joe, we can’t assign easy blame to either mother or father for the marriage’s failure. Oxenbould often has the hardest job as Joe, reacting to his parents’ confounding behavior, conveying his hurt and confusion with the tiniest of expressions.
Dano and Kazan’s screenplay pares Ford’s novel down to its essentials, packing each line with meaning the way Dano’s camera packs each image, and adds a new ending that feels perfect in its simplicity and utter devastation. “Wildlife” is one of the best movies of the year, and a hard one to shake.