Families are built upon two things: blood and belief. They can get by on the strength of one or the other (to have both is something of a luxury), but when the latter starts to wither, the former can only do so much to save it. This strange alchemy — the science responsible for so many American lives — percolates inside every frame of Paul Dano’s remarkable “Wildlife,” a tender, gorgeous, and exquisitely understated drama about a family that loses its faith in itself.
Adapted from Richard Ford’s 1990 novel of the same name, “Wildlife” begins in a calm and idyllic Montana town circa early 1960s. More specifically, it begins on the front lawn of a small house where a father and son are throwing a football just before dinner, disrupting the Edward Hopper tableaux like a fleck of stray paint. The two of them disappear around the side of the property, and while they’re only out of sight for a few seconds, it’s long enough to understand how fast this façade can evaporate; how even the most basic idea can lack a certain object permanence.
Joe is a solid 14-year-old kid whose voice has dropped faster than the rest of his body has been able to follow. Played by a perfectly cast Ed Oxenbould (whose round and rapidly changing face suggests that he’s wearing every expression for the first time), Joe has the bad luck of sprouting at the same time he’s desperate to grow roots. Jerry, his golf pro dad (Jake Gyllenhaal as an aimless Don Draper) has relocated the family so many times, and Joe just wants to stay put for a while. Join a team. Make some friends.
And Joe’s not the only one who’s getting sick of picking shit up and putting it down. His mom, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), is on her last nerve. “Every time we move it gets colder” she laments at one point, her pageant-queen smile cracking into something feral and jagged over the course of the film. If she and Jerry look like the kind of photogenic young couple that could stir up a small town overnight, they sure as hell don’t live up to that impression. Jerry polishes the shoes of wealthier men; Jeanette wears a long gray skirt that seamlessly blends into the sidewalk.
When Jerry loses his job, their idea of themselves can’t bear the strain. Mom and Dad suddenly shift out of their roles and become their own people. Jeanette starts smoking on the lawn with curlers in her hair and wearing a silk purple shirt that Joe has never seen before; Jerry tries to quiet the hum in his head by going off to fight a fire near the Canadian border, leaving Joe as the man of the house. Just like that, a gentle coming-of-age drama warps into a raw story of survival, as all three characters try to withstand the flames.
Working from the spare and beautifully observed script he co-wrote with Zoe Kazan — and directing with all the confidence you might expect from someone who’s spent the last two decades living the best film school imaginable — Dano crafts an unsparing portrait that’s harsh and humane in equal measure. Joe doesn’t know how he feels about the world burning down around him, and “Wildlife” respects that uncertainty, framing his story with a rigid touch while burnishing it into myth.
Stunningly shot by “Cemetery of Splendor” cinematographer Diego García, the film doesn’t romanticize the past, and yet you understand that Joe will be nostalgic for this one day. A gas station’s neon signage glows in the night like the Esso station at the end of “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” The big sky above Joe’s town is streaked with the exhaust of distant jets and saturated like the background of a Makoto Shinkai movie. David Lang’s unobtrusive score, a swirl of wind instruments and pianos, rustles the leaves like a dark thought. Two men in overalls smoke on the periphery of a wide shot, as though they’re keeping tabs on things, making sure that none of this gets too sentimental. The whole town seems to be standing in place, but they still need a photographer to try and make the moments last forever.
“I feel like I need to wake up, but I don’t know what from, or to,” Jeanette tells Joe, knowing full well that he won’t know what to do with that information. He’ll just look at her from the passenger seat, or stand at the doorway in her horror when he comes home to find his mom entertaining a burly local business magnate (the great Bill Camp). This is when “Wildlife” most firmly transitions away from whatever staid coming-of-age narrative you might expect; while Jerry is off fighting the fire, Jeanette becomes a force of nature unto herself.
Embracing self-destruction as a survival technique, she offers herself to the richest man she can find, making sure that her son has a front-row seat to this gross seduction. Jeanette wants Joe to grow up and learn to protect himself, but she needs to obliterate his understanding of who they are, recasting their roles so that they can outlive their current parts. Your parents were not always your parents, and even when they were they were other things, too. Supported by a script that understands Jeanette’s challenges and approaches them with rare empathy, Mulligan’s frayed performance resolves into a sad and strong and immensely powerful study of reinvention (Jeanette may be vulnerable, but there’s something fierce and admirable about how she seizes hold of her future). It’s striking to see such a proven actress deliver what’s so clearly the best work of her career, but it’s unsurprising that Dano knows what to do with his cast.
“Wildlife” is a small thing, and that modesty can feel at odds with the magnificence of its landscapes, or the monumental quality of the characters who pass through them. The drama escalates well, but the film’s last third leaves the impression that Dano’s talents could have supported something much bigger, even if it didn’t necessarily serve this story. It’s to his credit that he kept the film so contained, and even more impressive that he lets Joe’s family fray in ways that allow them to exist for after that last cut to black. The final scene of this resonant and quietly moving debut is unforgettable for how it reconciles the beauty of an idea with the reality that burns it alive. Fire can be a positive force, someone says. It can melt us down, and forge us into something new.
“Wildlife” premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competiton section of the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.