Actor Paul Dano makes his directorial debut with the assured Wildlife. Based on the Richard Ford novel, Dan and his partner Zoe Kazan have crafted a film full of quiet despair that features one of the years best performances. As Jeanette Brinson, the matriarch of the American family at the center of the film, Carey Mulligan hits a new high note in her impressive filmography.
Wildlife is a portrait of a family as they lose faith in themselves. More than just a marriage falling apart, this story shows the family unit breaking apart through the eyes of teenager Joe (Ed Oxenbould). Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) loses his job in front of Joe early in Wildlife. He struggles to find work which starts to strain on Jeanette. She ends up finding work herself, as does Joe, before Jerry volunteers to go off and fight a massive wildfire. His willingness to leave his family is too much for Jeanette to forgive. She soon begins a relationship with a wealthy divorcee named Warren (Bill Camp). Joe watches her as her bitter loneliness turns her to actively break apart from Jerry and in doing so her son as well.
Dano chooses to keep the focus on Joe as he watches his mother have an affair and his father return home to a broken family. It would be easy to make Jeanette out as a villain but in Mulligan's hands, she becomes a far more complex character. Jeanette is a woman out of time with the era she finds herself in. The screenplay doesn't provide much explicit insight into her motivations but at every turn, Mulligan gives us just enough to understand why she breaks her family apart. Oxenbould has previously excelled at playing an annoying teenager but here he is mesmerizing as an almost silent observer. His performance here marks him as a young actor to watch.
Wildlife is dominated by these two knockout performances. While they are certainly the focus, Dano has surrounded himself with a great production team. Diego García's cinematography is lush and lyrical. Early on there is a fantastic shot of Joe and Jerry playing football and as they do so they get lost in the frame, illustrating how quickly their idyllic existence can disappear. David Lang's score is understated and effective. The supporting cast is also very strong.
Wildlife marks Dano as a true talent behind the camera. This shouldn't come as a surprise as Dano has worked with some of the best filmmakers around. Bradly Cooper is getting a lot of attention for his directorial debut A Star is Born but Dano should not be overlooked when it comes to great turns from actors into directors.