As Jeanne Brinson, Carey Mulligan gives one of the finest performances of her career, a performance easily on par with her Oscar-nominated work in An Education and a performance so complete and so absorbing that I found myself completely and utterly surprised when the film was done and the closing credits were rolling.
I was there...really, really there and I didn't want to leave.
Adapted from a 1990 novel by Richard Ford by director Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan, Wildlife tells the story of the Brinsons, a seemingly ordinary American family who have only recently arrived in their latest place of residence in Montana. The family's patriarch, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), is a golf pro at the local golf course, though one quickly gets the feeling that there's something bubbling underneath the surface of Jerry's not quite serene normalcy. Jeanne stays home caring for the couple's 14-year-old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould), a young boy whose rather feeble participation in football serves as about the only bridge he has to his there but not there father.
Wildlife garnered raves when it premiered at Sundance earlier this year. While Jonah Hill earned kudos for his directorial debut with mid90's and Bradley Cooper has deservedly gotten the year's loudest buzz for A Star is Born, Paul Dano has crafted nothing less than one of the year's most astounding cinematic creations, a work so assured and brimming with authenticity that it simply must be considered as one of the year's absolute best motion pictures.
While some might credit the film's being set in 1960, the simple truth is that Wildlife radiates as a confident piece of old school filmmaking with Dano's remarkable storytelling complemented by stellar performances by co-leads Gyllenhaal and Mulligan and a remarkable, breakout performance from young Ed Oxenbould.
It's early in the film that we catch on that Jerry's ability to serve as the family patriarch is suspect at best, an unstable employment history becoming even more unstable when he loses his job at the golf course and Jeanne becomes the breadwinner with a gig at the local YMCA. Jerry sort of disappears, first emotionally and finally physically when he snags an opportunity to join a team fighting California wildifres for an extended period of time.
The Brinsons are much like America in 1960, a nuclear family about to explode.
Jeanne tries to be patient, but her already restless soul wants more out of life and love and family and the absence of the man she married leaves her fending for her self, their son and all that is missing from her hopes and dreams. Warren (Bill Camp) comes along, perhaps not surprisingly, offering something resembling companionship and stability and it's nearly impossible to blame Jeanne for believing that the grass may actually be greener on the other side.
If there's something surprising about Wildlife it's the quiet way in which Dano never allows the film to take sides or to turn anyone into a villain of sorts. There aren't really good or bad people in Wildlife - there's merely good people with flaws making the best decisions they can and figuring out how to live with them. Ed Oxenbould's Joe, in particular, is mesmerizing to watch as his idyllic world crumbles but doesn't really fall apart. He begins to realize that his parents are, in fact, flawed human beings living complex lives. It's not so much good or bad. It simply is.
Mulligan's here is extraordinary, so finely nuanced is her take on Jeanne's most difficult situation. In most films, we'd have seen the cliche's bouncing on the wall but they're almost completely absent here as Mulligan's Jeanne isn't necessarily an embittered woman but a woman learning how to adapt and adjust to the life that she's been given.
There's a difference. If you don't understand the difference, you will after watching Mulligan's performance.
David Lang's original score is one of the year's best, while Diego Garcia lenses the film with pristine intimacy and immersive clarity. Akin McKenzie's production design gives the film a sense of time and place, while Amanda Ford's costuming also deserves applause.
Wildlife isn't the kind of film that necessarily blows you away. Dano's a smarter director than that and Wildlife is a much better film for that. It's a film that sets you smack dab in the middle of its story and envelopes you as much with its silences as it does with its dialogue. 2018 has been a tremendous year for film, but even in this tremendous year for film you're not likely to experience another film like the thought-provoking, emotionally involving Wildlife.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic