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Film Review: Wildlife

19 November 18 words: Hilary Whiteside

Paul Dano's directorial debut is an adaptation of Richard Ford's novel about a family living in 1960s Montana...

Director: Paul Dano

Starring: Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould

Running time: 105 mins

Wildlife is a domestic drama set in Montana in the 1960s, a place where people are influenced and restricted by their small town values. First time director Paul Dano examines the disintegration of an outwardly contented and stable family, hinting at the underlying unease prevalent from the outset; an unease which gathers force as the narrative progresses, reaching its inevitable climax at the film’s conclusion. Carey Mulligan, who puts on an impressive show in developing her character, dominates the screen, but no less noticeable is Ed Oxenbould, her on-screen son, whose anguishing facial features provide a silent judgement on unfolding events. Jake Gyllenhaal takes on a lesser, but by no means insignificant, backup role.

The film opens with the presentation of a solid, stereotypical American family, and Dano utilises many of the clichés resonant of this 1960s society. More particularly, he explores the clearly defined gender roles of this period. Jeanette (Mulligan) initially appears as the subordinate, contented Stepford wife who willingly, indeed enthusiastically, embraces her homemaking role. There is no hint of her desire to rebel and she shows no willingness to challenge society’s strictures at this stage. In fact, at the beginning of the film she is swathed in a stereotypical 1960’s pinafore, suggesting the diligence and acceptance she affords this role. Whilst her concerns focus largely on the nurturing and education of her son Joe (Oxenbould), her husband Jerry (Gyllenhaal) has a somewhat different outlook on life. His approach is driven by his own concept of masculinity and the need to fit in. He ignores the sensitive nature of his son, insisting on participation in ball games to which the boy is clearly averse. Jerry is selfish and insensitive, beholden to the rules laid down by the community in which he lives. He will not entertain any idea of his son being different.

Beneath this false exterior the frustrations and limitations of 1960s society are waiting to erupt

Utilising this dysfunctional family set up, Dano explores the concept of the failed American Dream. This family clearly live on the poverty line along with many other families, and yet still manage to maintain a form of middle class respectability. However, when Jerry’s ‘over familiarity’ with the members costs him his job at the golf course, the fate of this family spirals out of control. Clearly in this capitalist society respectability is linked to status and paying homage to consumerism. Dano makes a subtle social comment about this class divide. He uses camera shots of the blazered members of the golf club beside those of Jerry clad in the working clothes of a greenkeeper, kneeling at the feet of these men and cleaning their shoes. Jerry is visually held firmly in the place allocated to him in the societal pecking order, clearly with no hope of fulfilling that promised American Dream. He confides in his son that ‘small people’ are being prevented from ‘getting ahead’, blaming everyone else for his misfortunes and failing to acknowledge his own faults. His wounded, masculine pride prevents him from taking on a more menial job, and it is this selfishness and lack of responsibility that contributes to the family breakdown. Jeanette loses any sympathy for him and their precarious financial position forces her to take control and to act.

After Jerry takes on a fire fighting job and leaves home, Jeanette rises to the occasion with aplomb.  She takes on a job and, dropping the image of respectable wife and mother, re-invents herself as a sensual, seductive independent women. It is she who is able to move on both literally and metaphorically. When Jerry returns, only Joe welcomes him; the marriage lies in tatters, reconciliation impossible. The men remain within the safety and structure of the small town and are compliant with its restriction. Jerry is either unable, or unwilling, to change, nor will he afford his son any choice. It is a poignant moment when Joe confesses to his mother that he has re-joined the football team. He is being forced to comply.

Dano uses recurring images of family photographs to provide a social commentary. We are invited to view perfectly posed American families; yet know this to be a sham. Beneath this false exterior the frustrations and limitations of 1960s society are waiting to erupt.  Dramatic images of a forest fire ripping through trees are unnerving, and the use of diegetic sound highlighting the destruction and immediacy of the fire adds to this. Broad sweeping shots of the surrounding mountains highlight the beauty of this region and give welcome relief from screen tension. 

Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian makes the comment that Wildlife is, “an impressive directorial debut for Dano,” which it indeed is. However, with a running time of 105 minutes, it does feel overlong which perhaps makes a salient final comment from this critic.   

Did you know? When Paul Dano requested the rights to adapt Richard Ford's novel into this movie he received the following response: "I am grateful to you for your interest in my book, but I should also say this in hopes of actually encouraging you. My book is my book, your picture, were you to make it, is your picture. Your movie maker's fidelity to my novel is of no great concern to me. Establish your own values, means, goal. Leave the book behind so it doesn't get in the way."

Wildlife is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 22 November

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