Paul Dano’s directorial debut Wildlife is undeniably a career-making moment, but not for Dano. Rather, in a film which could be described as pretty but empty, Carey Mulligan shines. Breaking out of previously girlish roles, her emotional depth spreads throughout the whole film, sweeping away the other two central characters in her wake.
The opening sweeping landscape shots contrast with the narrow focus of the film. Set in a small town in 1950’s Montana, Wildlife is the tale of the breakdown of a family made up of only three members, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), and their son Joe (Ed Oxenbould). Joe is our eyes into their crumbling familial world, witnessing his parents’ respective crises, but we too are constantly reminded of this through intense close-ups of his grimacing face and sorrowful eyes. As a protagonist with whom we are supposed to empathise, Joe’s role misses the mark. Oxenbould’s acting is good, but it doesn’t require much more than some wide-eyed vulnerability and a knotted brow to get the audience’s sympathy, and other than that his character doesn’t stick. Jerry, the unhappy golf- pro father, is clearly disappointed with what his life has become. Fired from his job, he leaves his family and joins “a bunch of deadbeats” (his unimpressed wife’s words) to fight local wildfires. Left behind and feeling hurt, Jeanette tries to relive her youthful glory days by dressing up, drinking, and starting an illicit affair with a much older, much richer man, Mr Miller.
And so, with Gyllenhaal out of the picture, Mulligan is free to become the star. As the film moves slowly and quietly through the story, she fills the empty space in an intense performance as a depressed mother, oversharing with Joe, wearing a self-defined “desperation dress”, and simply trying to rediscover her spark. Her performance is full of wit and watching her is enthralling, both at quiet moments as she sways gently around the garden or more intense scenes, as she cries on Joe after sleeping with Miller in her marital bed.
But in a fine-tuned family dynamic supposed to be maintained by three equal figures, Mulligan’s exceptional performance creates imbalance, especially when compared to scenes between the quiet father and son duo. This jarring disparity means that without Mulligan, it would be an underwhelmingly pale and quiet film.
The overwhelming symbolism – Jeanette becoming a swimming teacher whilst Joe fights fires, literally pitting water and fire against each other feels like self-indulgent Oscar-baiting. The Wes Anderson-esque shots of pretty, pale swimming pools, bus stops and diners are the moments that stay with you, while moments of plot or character interaction slip away. Even these pale and sometime clinical shots are not enough to make you feel invested. Despite being about daily existences of family life, the film doesn’t deal with true emotions; Wildlife is a film from which the audience feels very removed. As a film which deals with the ‘extraordinary ordinary’, this lack of connection is emblematic of its mediocrity. Thank God for Mulligan and cinematographer Diego García’s shots.
Image: Eva Rinaldi via Wikimedia Commons.