Paul Dano is the sort of actor who sneaks up on you. He’s had his share of high profile roles in films like There Will Be Blood, Love & Mercy, Prisoners and Little Miss Sunshine, but it’s rare he’s one of the names that springs to mind when people discuss the defining actors of a generation. But he’s shown a keen eye for choosing projects over the years, making the choice to move to the director’s chair a potentially fruitful one. Dano seems like the sort of artist who wouldn’t direct just to direct, but would when the right project comes along. And apparently it has, as his first feature, Wildlife, bowed at Sundance and has begun its rollout for the fall movie season. Some have pegged Dano as somewhat heavily mannered in his acting roles, the sort of trait that can either be a boon or a detriment depending on your taste, but perhaps what’s so impressive about this project from Dano is how unassuming it is. We’ve seen more than our fair share of first directorial efforts from high profile actors in 2018, and in all of those cases, there’s some clear hook that puts them front and center. For Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born, it’s plain enough (he stars in it, after all), but even Jonah Hill’s disappointing Mid90s smacks of a kid who grew up in LA in the 90s and idolized skater culture from afar. Wildlife is an entirely different animal. It’s an adaptation of a Richard Ford novel, a period piece set in 1960 and a quiet drama about the slow self-destruction of a family, but not in a flashy, American Beauty sort of way. It’s not saying anything about Dano himself, it’s just a story he wants to tell.
Our view into this world is young Joe (Ed Oxenbould), the child of Jeannette (Carey Mulligan) and Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal). Jerry’s a former golf pro who gets fired from his job at a local country club, creating tension in the house at a time (1960) when the woman wasn’t exactly expected to be a breadwinner. He soon takes a lower paying job fighting a forest fire that causes him to leave the family for a few months until the snow comes and the fire goes away for good. Jeanette takes her new-found freedom to heart, becoming a swimming instructor in town both to get a little extra money and keep herself busy during the day. She meets a local auto dealer (Bill Camp) while teaching him to swim, and soon takes solace in this new man in her life. Despite still being married to the absentee Jerry, Jeannette is remarkably brazen in pursuing her new man, not even hiding her infidelity from her son.
Some have remarked that this is Mulligan’s true coming out party as one of the great actors of our generation, but I would contend that those people haven’t been paying close enough attention to her work. Between Mudbound, Never Let Me Go, An Education, Far from the Madding Crowd and Shame, she’s been dialing up knock out performances on the big screen for nearly a decade now. Sure, not all of them are pure leads like she is here, so that may explain why Wildlife perked up some ears, but anyone who doubted her power surely can’t look the other way after her bravura turn here. It helps having such strong co-leads in Gyllenhaal and Oxenbould and Camp, but, honestly, Mulligan doesn’t need the help. She’s the heartbeat of the film, defiant and spirited, more than comfortable putting her own needs above what some may expect of her and unconcerned with what the fallout of these decisions may be. Gyllenhaal is all wounded pride, his livelihood taken from him in an instant, and it is clear he has no coping mechanism to deal with the downtime and the pressure that comes from being among the unemployed. He sees his decision to abscond to the wildfire as not only an opportunity to make money for his family again (despite the heavy pay cut), but also a chance to challenge himself and do some good. That ends up overriding his more direct familial responsibilities, but not enough to change his mind. It’s clear his wife and son don’t quite agree.
One of the more fascinating aspects of Dano’s directorial debut is the way he chooses to view the events with an almost startling impartiality. The script, co-written with partner Zoe Kazan, treats everything in a rather matter of fact, and keening amoralistic sort of way. There’s no judgment to Jerry’s choice to leave his family behind, nor is there for Jeannette’s getting cozy with another man and flaunting that in front of their teenage son who misses his father terribly. This is not to say the characters don’t have their own opinion on what’s right and wrong, but the film clearly isn’t pitched either way. It’s observational, content to let things play out as they will. This gives the actors the space they need to give them their own identity without prescribing to an overall worldview the film is trying to establish, a smart decision when those actors are of the quality of Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal and Bill Camp.
It’s unsurprising that Dano marks his first feature with an actor-first mentality. That’s often the case, after all, but there’s more to Wildlife than simply an acting showcase. The camera, under the control of Diego Garcia, is often slow and deliberate, creating these dioramas and slices of their lives that show the isolation and heartbreak that comes simply from living. Much of Wildlife is a reminder of how secretly fragile we are as humans, how the smallest details can be the straw the breaks the camel’s back. It is likely that the majority of the breath spent on this film will be sucked up by Mulligan’s performance, and it is entirely worthy of such praise. But don’t sleep on the full package. In a season that seems to be defined by actors turned first-time directors, Dano appears to come out the other side the rosiest. Wildlife may not have the glitz and glamor of A Star is Born or the indie chic of Mid90s, but as a film, it is better than both of them. It seems Paul Dano has a promising directorial career ahead of him if he wants it.