Wildlife review: Carey Mulligan is a safe bet to earn a Best Actress Oscar nod
As he's proved in everything from Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood to Prisoners and 12 Years A Slave, Paul Dano is among the edgiest and most interesting of the younger generation of Hollywood actors. We haven't seen him in much lately, but, in fairness, he's been busy with other things. He and his partner Zoe Kazan had a baby in August and before that, they found time to adapt this Richard Ford novel together.
In fat, sweeping, state-of-the-nation novels like The Sportswriter and Independence Day, Ford emerged as one of the literary giants of late 20th century America, but his 1990 book Wildlife is a quieter, more intimate, small-scale affair - its simple narrative better fitting the restrictions of a 100-minute film. Dano and Kazan have had the good sense to stick pretty faithfully to its darkly poetic storyline, but Dano's direction takes full advantage of the book's evocative backdrop.
It's 1960 and young couple Jerry and Jeanette Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal, Carey Mulligan) have just moved to the small town of Great Falls, Montana, with their teenage son, Joe. Jerry, a restless dreamer with a vague sense of thwarted entitlement, has dragged his family to this gloomy outpost so they can start afresh and earn their slice of the American dream.
That initially entails working as a golf caddy at the local country club, where Jerry imagines that forging friendships with the locals will be his ticket to the big time. He's charming, but over-eager, and when he oversteps the bounds of familiarity with the members, his uptight boss fires him. Instead of bouncing back, Jerry sulks, and hangs around the house bemoaning his luck and drinking in the afternoon. Very helpful.
He may not be a fighter, but Jeanette is. Sensing danger, she swallows her pride and takes a job as a swimming instructor at the local YMCA. "Can you believe it," she says jauntily, "people in Montana want to learn to swim!"
All the while, Joe watches on, saying nothing but clearly anxious, though his hopes rise when it seems that his resourceful mother might just save the day. Then, suddenly but indisputably, things get worse.
A large forest fire is raging in the high hills beyond the town, and against Jeanette's express wishes, Jerry decides to enrol as a firefighter, which means he'll be gone for weeks and possibly months on end. It feels like the end of something, and Joe grows alarmed as his mother's previously dependable demeanour begins to change.
Convinced that her marriage is now over, Jeanette drops her parental veneer and vents her rage at being stranded in this dead-end town. She becomes coy and girlish, and starts hanging around with a rotundly predatory older man called Warren (Bill Camp), who's wealthy but dead-eyed. Joe's covert efforts to hold his family together seem doomed.
In the novel, it's Joe who narrates, pining tersely from the sidelines while his parents trash his carefully ordered life. But in Dano's film, he says very little, leaving us to guess what's going on in his head. Some critics have seen this as a failing in an otherwise accomplished film, but I'm not so sure. Oxenbould's agonised face speaks volumes, and one feels the pain of a child confronted too soon with parental flaws.
Wildlife is very nicely shot, and if some of the compositions evoke too neatly the mid-century paintings of Edward Hopper, Dano and his designers have done a fine job overall of reimagining a vintage small American town. Gyllenhaal has been unlucky of late in Oscar terms, but probably isn't around long enough in this film to stand much chance of troubling the Academy scorers.
Not so Mulligan, who seems a fairly safe bet to earn a Best Actress nod for her work here. She had a tendency to seem brittle and mannered in her early films, but she's maturing into a very fine actress indeed, and is superb in a role that demands a considerable emotional arc.
There are no villains in Wildlife, just flawed and muddled adults, and Jeanette is a wonderfully puzzling creation: at times you applaud her spirit and liveliness, at others you wish she'd remember to protect her poor son from her wild excesses.
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Zoe Kravitz, Jude Law, Johnny Depp);
Suspiria (Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson, Mia Goth, Chloe Grace Moretz).