London Film Festival: ‘Wildlife’ Review

It’s festival season! The FilmSoc blog is covering the 62nd BFI London Film Festival (10th – 21st October), diving into the myriad of films and events on offer to deliver reviews.

Raphael Duhamel dives into Paul Dano’s quiet and intimate directorial debut.

Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano’s adaptation of the 1990 novel Wildlife starts off as a traditional account of a family’s failures and successes in post-war America. Jeannette (Carey Mulligan) and Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) have a teenage son Joe (Ed Oxenbould), who plays football at school and listens to sports events on the radio with his father in the evening. Jeannette stays at home to take care of the house and Joe’s upbringing, while Jerry earns twenty dollars a week scraping dirt off rich men’s shoes as a caddy.

From this premise onwards, the film succeeds in defying expectations and letting Mulligan’s character occupy centre stage. Far from being a stereotypical and misogynistic patriarch, her husband is surprisingly tolerant and seemingly unable to exert any kind of domination over her. When Jerry is let go from his demeaning job, he enters an existential crisis which disturbs the balance of power between the couple and the family entirely. Gyllenhaal excels in this role as a lost man with a hangdog look, whose search for purpose never ends: his departure to fight a forest fire acts as a metaphorical encapsulation of his discontent, which he can temporarily confront yet never permanently conquer. His absence facilitates Jeannette and Joe’s rise to independence, since both are now able to enjoy a newfound freedom guiding them towards self-sufficiency. Whereas Oxenbould’s character takes advantage of the situation to get a job in a photographer’s studio, his mother starts seeing a rich entrepreneur and widow, Warren Miller (Bill Camp), in the hope of a better life.

Mulligan’s performance as a strong and damaged woman is reminiscent of her superb part in Shame, in which she portrayed a gifted singer with suicidal tendencies. The fragility and temerity displayed in Steve McQueen’s masterpiece resurface in Wildlife’s central episode, during which Jeannette and Joe have dinner with Miller. After many glasses of hard liquor, the sequence culminates in a deeply disturbing seductive dance executed by the mother, who shamelessly exposes herself in front of her son. The many closeups of Mulligan’s face, smeared with crude makeup in a desperate attempt to captivate her wealthy friend, contrast with Joe’s pale complexion, forced to witness his mother’s betrayal of their family’s trust. Jeannette’s brazen adulterous adventure recalls Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, and its heart-breaking “Vivo per lei” performed by the protagonist in front of his debauched mother. This pivotal sequence marks the beginning of Joe’s emancipation and entry into adulthood, having faced both his parents’ irresponsibility and forced to understand that he must grow out of them. Ultimately, Wildlife is a tale of rebirth, revealing how from a family’s ashes a man might arise.

Indeed, the screenplay provides enough depth and compelling dialogue for two powerhouse displays by Mulligan and Gyllenhaal, but yet it chooses to concentrate on Joe, who stands out through his boyish maturity with the appearance of an adult in a child’s body. Oxenbould’s character inevitably echoes Dano’s own work as an actor, whose distinctive demeanour initially drew attention to him in motion pictures such as Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood. His experience as a successful actor undoubtedly contributed to his masterful direction, which already offers signs of incredible maturity and skill.

Diego García’s cinematography embraces a Hopper-like style of quiet suburban melancholy, punctuated with everyday life settings. Wildlife takes place in Great Falls, Montana, a northern and mountainy location bathed in cold light, complemented by the artificial bright white glare of the town’s supermarkets and schools. Characters are mostly shot in closeups, occupying the centre of the frame, as if they were portraits taken in Joe’s studio: like Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, the film’s visual style reflects its historical setting and truly benefits from it.

Dano’s feature suffers only from excessive refinement, indulging in its own delicacy and stillness. By restraining itself to the realistic portrayal of a single family, it is short of any real emotion, in spite of every actor’s dedication. Its reserve is detrimental to the story’s progression, which lacks a truly cathartic climax, thus regrettably failing to have a significant impact on the audience, unlike its bashful ending which provides a supremely poetic sense of closure. Wildlife remains a quiet gem, not bold enough to seek out its potential, but honest and elegant at heart.

Wildlife will have its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival on October 13th. It will be generally released on November 9th. Check out its trailer below:

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