“Fire can be a positive force,” a group of teenagers are told in a safety talk. Responsible 14-year-old Joe (Ed Oxenbould) diligently takes notes. But the wildfires burning up swathes of forest in 1960s Montana devastate his life, when his father (Jake Gyllenhaal) leaves the family to try to help extinguish them for a dollar an hour. In her husband’s absence, Joe’s mother (Carey Mulligan) crackles with flashes of self-destructive behaviour that threaten to consume any family structure that remains.
Wildlife, a portrait of a loving family experiencing a major breakdown, is the directorial debut from Paul Dano (an actor known for his roles in Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood and 12 Years a Slave). Joe is working in a photography studio, and this is a picture taken from his perspective.
At times thematically heavy-handed, but nevertheless atmospheric, the film’s scaffolding is its three expansive central performances, and sensitive Stephen Shore-inspired cinematography. It’s not dialogue or plot reveals that make a lasting impression, but images: a vibrant pink sky above suburban homes; Gyllenhaal, in a white T-shirt tucked into light trousers, putting golf balls under the washing line in his back garden. Mulligan – who delivers a wonderful, unpredictable performance, veering between maternal kindness and spectacular, attention-seeking selfishness – is particularly captivating: moving past rows of identical yellow tinned goods with damp hair, standing on a grey curb under a skeletal tree in a dusty blouse, drinking from a brown and red beer bottle in a red jumper.
Adapted from Richard Ford’s novel by Dano and his partner and fellow actor, Zoe Kazan, Wildlife is both bleak and hopeful, revealing how families hurt each other, and how they survive.
This article appears in the 07 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Revenge of the nation state