In Wildlife, character actor Paul Dano makes his directorial debut with a screenplay written by himself and playwright/actor Zoe Kazan. And hopefully Wildlife isn’t a fluke because if it’s any indication of Dano’s talents as a director, they are formidable and we should be in for a strong career from the man. There really isn’t much new about the story. It’s set in 1960 in Montana. Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan (a casting duo I was super excited about) star as a couple who find their marriage fracturing. Ed Oxenbould is their teenage son, a depressed kid, struggling to survive the tumult of his home life. Dano directs the film in a muted color palette with a lot of long takes and a lot of long still shots of atmosphere and environment. So far, yeah, it’s kind of your typical indie movie, right? Well, one thing that really elevates the film is the performances. Carey Mulligan is an actress I’ve liked for a long time, but she certainly has, as most actors do, a bag of tricks she likes to use; but I’m telling you uses not a one in this movie. It’s a transformative performance, not from the outside, but from the inside; it’s raw, earthy and deeply felt. It’s her best performance yet, I’d say. Gyllenhaal is quite restrained and very good as well. Dano strips away all of Gyllenhaal’s usual externalities as well and gets the simplest performance we’ve seen from Gyllenhaal in quite some time and that’s a compliment, not a slam. If you saw Oxenbould in The Visit, you’ll be really surprised at his minimalistic, deeply troubled performance; there’s a heaviness to it in terms of the repressed emotions the character is carrying and Oxenbould really nails it. Also of note is veteran character actor Bill Camp, always a pleasure, in a substantial supporting role as a local businessman with designs on Mulligan’s character. A lengthy sequence of Mulligan, Camp & Oxenbould having dinner together is the film’s most arresting scene and it’s absolutely brilliant. Dano captures a real sense of time and place; the film is visually beautiful in a drab, indie Midwest kind of way. The performances really give the film a deep emotional resonance that elevates the film above its admittedly cliched story. Wildlife isn’t a movie that reinvents the wheel, but some stories, if told artfully, sensitively and by a gifted group of collaborators, roll on to perfection. 4 stars.
tl;dr – a sensitive script is elevated by a batch of excellent performances, with Carey Mulligan earning special marks; the story has no surprises, but the emotional power is undeniable. 4 stars.