Ah, you hear that? It’s the sound of a film I actually liked.
The last few movie reviews on No But Listen have been a bit of trudge through stuff we thought lacked, stuff we thought we’d love and would up disliking, and stuff we knew we’d hate but went to see anyway because we’re reviewing the rest of that cinematic universe and couldn’t avoid it. But finally, here’s a lovely little film that just works.
Now, I’ve been a fan of Paul Dano as an actor for pretty much as long as I’ve been watching movies – I adored him in Little Miss Sunshine, playing a thinly veiled version of my own brother – and he went on to have a fascinating on-screen career. From Looper to Prisoners to For Ellen, I think he’s an actor with a weird, watchable presence that I find oddly addictive – and yes, that extends to watching Cowboys vs Aliens just because he was in it. No, I’m not proud of it either.
But Wildlife, his latest movie, sees him not in front of camera but behind it for the first time: Dano directs and co-writes along with Zoe Kazan, and while I was initially dissapointed that I wasn’t going to get to indulge in one of his signature slippery side characters, I think I might actually prefer Paul Dano when he’s out of frame.
Wildlife is a simple, small little film, following a mother (Carrie Mulligan), a father (Jake Gyllenhaal) and a teenaged son (Ed Oxenbloud) in sixties Montana as they attempt to navigate a litany of change in their lives. I’m not necessarily a huge family drama fan when it comes to film (in my real life, boy, I can’t get enough), but the pinpoint focus of Dano’s story allows it to illuminate all the corners of this family, with fascinating effect.
I think a lot of credit has to go to the cast here, who find powerful layers of nuance in characters who could slide into cliche in less-experienced hands: Mulligan, as the mother trying to find her way through a nervous breakdown after her husband leaves to fight a wildfire, puts in one of the most viscous, raw performances of her career in a role that finds as much tragedy as it does cruelty. Gylllenhaal has been turning in these brutally honest performances his whole career, but this one has to be one of his best in recent memory, and Ed Oxenbloud (building on the tender, vulnerable performance he put in for M Night Shyamalan’s The Visit), as the thread that winds us through this curious story, finds more than just disaffected youth in the character.
But it’s really Dano who helps us navigate through this story – so many first-time directors, especially when they’re coming from the screen or the stage first, hit the filmmaking 101 marks to show off just what they can do and what they understand about the craft, but Dano sidesteps. Wildlife, appropriately, is naturalistic, lingering with long takes, slow pacing, and off-centre framing: it’s difficult to pull off the naturalistic thing without having it read as an obtrusive attempt to manufacture authenticity, but Wildlife finds neat balance between truth and handsome fiction.
With Wildlife, Dano has struck out with a fascinating family drama that pushes past soap opera and finds its way to insight – it’s the kind of story I don’t want to tell you too much about, because watching the nuances of how it unfolds is really the best thing about it. This film won’t make you gasp, scream, clutch your chest, but it will hang around in the back of your head for a while, as you find within it parallels to your own life and experience. And, after a run of movies that have left me cold, I’m so happy to fall back in love with cinema via a careful little film made with such obvious love for the craft. And I can’t wait to see what Paul Dano does – behind the camera or in front of it – next.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image courtesy of Roger Ebert)