It’s the same every year at the London Film Festival. Tucked away in the brochure is at least one little goodie that you’d expect to be given a higher profile, and that’s exactly what’s happened with Wildlife. On page 35, if your copy is to hand, is this contender for the First Feature Competition, actor Paul Dano’s debut as a director, with a script co-written by him and wife Zoe Kazan. So, after acclaim at Sundance and Toronto, as well as Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal in the main roles, its comparatively low key arrival comes as something of a surprise.
It does, however, suit the tone of the film. This is no showy first offering, but a steadily paced, sincere portrait of a crumbling marriage in the early 1960s. Jerry (Gyllenhaal), Jeanette (Mulligan) and their son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) have moved from the city to an isolated Montana town but when Jerry loses his job, he takes the only work available – going off to the nearby mountains to fight the forest fires. While he’s away, Jeanette gets herself a job as well, one that leads to an affair with an older, wealthy businessman. But eventually Jerry comes home and they have to face the truth about their marriage.
Told through the eyes of 14 year old Joe, it’s a story that often unfolds through his reactions to something said or done off screen, in another room maybe – a muffled or more immediate argument, his mother and her lover together – so it asks plenty of Oxenbould and of our imagination. There are times when we’re taken into his confidence and allowed to see what he sees, but they’re few and far between: mostly it’s down to Oxenbould to carry the narrative momentum and the emotional weight. It’s hard to avoid that the 17 year old Australian bears a startling resemblance to a young Dano, but that’s essentially a side issue. The director has coaxed a remarkably mature performance from the young actor, something of a revelation.
Indeed, this is a film that’s all about the acting, in other words Oxenbould, Mulligan and Gyllenhaal. The latter is off screen for a large portion of the movie, so his is more of a supporting role, but he inhabits the well-intentioned but feckless Jerry with conviction. Mulligan’s talents have never been in doubt, but she excels herself here – brittle, constantly dissatisfied, feeling that life is passing her by and disguising it all with a paper-thin optimism that convinces nobody, least of all herself.
Visually, the film is handsomely constructed, with its non-descript prairie town that seems to go on forever and only ever changes when it’s covered with a blanket of snow. The train never stops there – those never ending freight trains constantly rumble through – and it’s only the bus that provides any connection with the wider world. Landscapes are often framed by windows, creating the impression of something carefully composed.
According to the radio in the background, 1960 is “one heck of a year” and, for this particular family, it is – but not in the way that over-cheery voice means. Wildlife is a sad film, but not wholly gloomy as there is a modicum of hope, even though the very final shot is laden with sadness. For Dano, 2018 has proved to be “one heck of a year” because of this film. And it isn’t over yet.
Freda Cooper | ★★★ 1/2
Drama | 12A | London Film Festival 13, 14 and 15 October (2018) | UK, 9 November (2018) | Icon | Dir. Paul Dano | Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould , Bill Camp.