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LFF 2018: Wildlife
October 11, 2018
It seems that the last few years have heralded a renaissance of the actor-turned-director: Greta Gerwig and Jordan Peele swept award season with Lady Bird and Get Out respectively, Sofia Coppola became the first American woman to win the Best Director award at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival for The Beguiled, and movie stars like Angelina Jolie (Unbroken) and Ben Affleck (The Town, Argo) continue to find their creative voice behind the camera. It makes sense, though; who better to step behind the camera than someone who has built a career in front of one? It is often said that these directors get better performances out of their actors because they can speak a common language and understand the conditions necessary to bring out these performances.
This year, it’s Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood star Paul Dano’s turn at moving from one side of the lens to the other with his directorial debut Wildlife, co-written with his partner Emily Kazan, based off Richard Ford’s novel of the same name. Wildlife tells the story of Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould), a fourteen-year-old boy who finds himself caught in the middle of his parents’ messy separation, learning to fend for himself as his world seemingly falls apart around him. For a first-time director, Dano deftly navigates complex family dynamics, mental illness and masculinity, turning in one of the most emotionally wrought films of the year.
When husband and father Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal) uproots his family and moves to Montana in search of work, he forces his wife Jean (Carey Mulligan) and son Joe to start over in a new city. Firmly rooted in 60s gender roles, Jerry encourages Joe to play football and his wife to stay home while he works to provide for them. So, when Jerry loses his job and decides to leave his family to fight a devastating wildfire, the Brinson household is thrown into disarray. While so many other films with the star power and acting chops of Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan would focus either on Jerry’s triumph over nature and determination to provide for his family or Jean’s plight as a single mother in a new city, Wildlife is told from Joe’s perspective; Dano follows the young character as he learns about divorce, sex, depression and death for the first time.
Wildlife explores the subject of depression in a unique way; Jerry is sensitive and erratic but tries to maintain the façade of the stoic breadwinner. He thinks that financial security and a nuclear family will make him happy, bouncing between jobs to avoid facing the reality that he’ll never fill the void. “I’ve got a hum in my head”, he tells his son before he leaves to fight the symbolic fire, which destroys the forest as depression destroys the Brinson family. Meanwhile, Jean’s mental health deteriorates as her husband leaves her in a foreign city with no connections and no job. She questions every part of her identity, down to her first name, trying to reinvent herself as a now single woman after being married for so long. Joe is left to watch as his mother falls desperately and reluctantly into the arms of rich businessman Warren Miller played by Bill Camp, telling her son that she’d “rather be dead” when he finally confronts her about the loveless relationship.
Central to Wildlife is newcomer Ed Oxenbould’s performance as an adolescent boy thrust into manhood by his parents’ separation. A precocious child from the start, more interested in study than sports, Joe offers to get a job when his father loses his, he repairs the house when his father leaves and he even drives his drunk mother home following a particularly hard to watch dinner at Warren Millers’. Paul Dano does a brilliant job of reminding the audience, however, that no matter how mature and responsible Joe Brinson becomes, he is still a fourteen-year-old boy; his grades suffer when his parents separate, and he constantly asks when his father will return.
Masculinity and mental illness play a huge role in Paul Dano’s sixties period piece, but the themes at its core feel more relevant than ever in a time when suicide is the biggest killer of men under forty-five. Dano plays up to the actor-turned-director reputation, bringing out stunning performances from the ever-reliable but often underrated Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan, as well as introducing the world to Ed Oxenbould. The profound sense of melancholy lying amongst the muted colours means that Wildlife is not always the most pleasant watch, even uncomfortable in places; but for a first-time director, Dano finds beauty within the awkwardness, making Wildlife one of the most affecting independent films of the year.
Wildlife is screening this year’s BFI London Film Festival. Its set for release inthe UK on the 9th November 2018.
Words by Ethan Megenis-Clarke @_ethanmc.