Paul Dano's somber, beautiful Wildlife is much more than just a showcase for its incredible actors

Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal | IFC Films

Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal | IFC Films

This review is part of Reel Nine’s coverage of the 41st Denver Film Festival. You can find reviews of other films at the festival here.

It seems Paul Dano was destined to become a director. A storied actor who has worked with some of the most esteemed filmmakers in the world, from Paul Thomas Anderson to Denis Villeneuve, Dano’s immeasurable talent was fostered and given room to grow under the tutelage of living legends. It’s natural, then, that Dano would eventually move behind the camera for a film that is by definition an acting-focused feature, the sort of quiet film given life by the meaty roles it gives to actors eager to show off the depths of their repertoires. Wildlife, his directorial debut that he also co-wrote with partner and fellow actor Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks), is the shining result of that instinctive progression to working from the world outside the lens, an achingly beautiful and astoundingly performed family drama that proves Dano is more than prepared for his newfound creative outlet.

Based on Richard Ford’s 1990 novel of the same name, the 1960s-set film follows the slow implosion of the marriage of Jeanette (Carey Mulligan, An Education) and Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler) through the eyes of their young son Joe (Ed Oxenbould, The Visit). Jerry, recently fired from his job as country club golf pro and collapsing under the weight of a mid-life crisis, retreats from his wife and son to earn meager pay fighting a wildfire in the nearby mountains. Jeanette, confounded by her husband’s behavior and regretful over wasting her youth with him, embarks on an affair with affluent dealership owner Warren Miller (Bill Camp, The Night Of), leaving Joe to watch as the facade of his idyllic nuclear family crumble away.

Dano’s aim here is to pull nuanced performances out of his prolific actors, and he surpasses all expectations, showing a restrained hand that lets their work speak for itself. It’s most successful in the case of Mulligan, who turns in a career performance and one of the most layered, beautifully messy portrayals of a woman in recent memory. On paper, Jeanette seems like a character in danger of perpetuating stereotypes about female emotional stability, but Mulligan makes her a deeply sympathetic woman whose soul has been withered away by years of suburban expectation and dreams unrealized. What makes the performance refreshing is its honesty, drawing its strength from the uncertainty we all face in the often difficult decisions of our adult lives. Jeanette is selfish, vulnerable, and spiteful, most of all when it comes to herself. But Mulligan doesn’t let us forget the pain that fractured her identity. She instead forces us to look inside and ask ourselves if we can really blame Jeanette for who she is. When she breaks down and says to Joe, “If you’ve got a better plan for me, tell me. I’ll try it. Maybe it’ll be better than this,” Mulligan assures that she’s interrogating the audience just as bluntly as Jeanette pressuring her own son.

Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould, and Gyllenhaal | IFC Films

Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould, and Gyllenhaal | IFC Films

While he’s not in the film as much as promotional material might have you believe, Gyllenhaal is still equally superb in his smaller role here. Gyllenhaal positions Jerry as a man constantly on the brink, the sort whose self-imposed pressure to be exceptional has done everything to sabotage that goal. Just as Jeanette has suffered under the double standards of the American dream, Jerry represents the pratfalls of that ideal’s adoration of masculinity. Gyllenhaal shows Jerry, for all his good intentions, isn’t up to the task. He lacks the emotional stability prescribed to men by notions of what it means to be the so-called breadwinner, and Gyllenhaal milks his uncertainty in every scene he’s in. Even his showier moments, the scenes where Jerry’s anger boils over into mania, are tinged with a sensitivity and guilt that only an actor of Gyllenhaal’s caliber can pull off. He may not get the scenery-chewing lines of Mulligan, but he rises to the occasion with equal amounts of gusto.

Oxenbould, faced with the challenge of having to live up to the performances of two of the greatest actors in the industry, is too a revelation. Much of what Dano wants to explore thematically in this film hinges on the strength of his performance, as the audience isn’t able to fully feel the weight of the horrors of realizing our parents aren’t who we believe them to be without a willing martyr. Oxenbould plays Joe as naïvely, even painfully kind, and his tenderness makes the tragedy of this family’s self-destruction all the more impactful. In what could have been a pretty thankless role, he elevates it into something pure, which in turn makes the film’s prospect of your child being a casualty in the chaos of your own personal failings a truly terrifying possibility.

It’s not just the actors who are in fine form, as Dano shows he’s a more than capable director who with a visual style that’s both grand and appropriately patient. Many first-time directors, regardless of background, come bursting out of the gates with bold, showoffesque styles that prove these directors are often too preoccupied with establishing themselves and less concerned with providing an effective film. Dano, on the other hand, knows exactly when to play his cards. He saves his grand visions for the lush exterior landscapes of Montana, partnering with cinematographer Diego García to shoot its lonely beauty like a Realist painter acknowledging all the lavishness and disillusionment the American frontier can provide. In one poignant scene, Jeanette laments, “What kind of man leaves his wife and child in such a lonely place?” and Dano astutely follows it up with scenes of beautiful desolation. Conversely, he shows restraint when framing his actors, boxing them in and holding back stylistically in order to capture the organic nature of their performances unimpeded by illusions of self-importance. It’s an assured, confident debut that proves Dano’s newfound passion is no fluke, but a product of his modesty and sensitivity towards the power of performance.

Wildlife is a self-contained wonder, the sort of quietly auspicious drama that resonates not because it asks anything particularly new but because it phrases those questions with a language that’s beautifully complex. From its opening scene to its devastating final moments, this is a debut that recognizes the deep pain of a generation and empathizes with it rather than take the easy path of damnation. It knows the reconciliation of who we present ourselves to be with the cold, harsh reality of the truth is a difficult, often unforgiving process. But it also knows there’s beauty to be found in the fire of that acceptance.