Dir. Paul Dano. Starring Ed Oxenbould, Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal
Few phrases give me the heebie-jeebies faster than “actor-turned-director.” not because I don’t think these people are capable—”a great artist can come from anywhere,” per Ratatouille—but because the track record is so depressingly flat. This is practically the Redford or Eastwood guarantee: the performances will be very fine, but the movie will be impotent. Having seen Wildlife, a movie I really enjoyed, I’m still trying to figure out if Dano is on the Redford track or not. Does the Millennial Brad Dourif making a mid-century Ordinary People benefit from terrific performances, or does he have an eye? It would be very easy, incidentally, to cast Wildlife aside as an Ordinary People sort of story. (I’m going to leave my Ordinary People review here in case you want to see why I’m using that comparison as a dirty word and not as a path to be traveled on.) Dad who can’t quite stem the tide, mom who’s losing her mind with the juiciest acting bits, decent teenager child who just wants to be loved, etc. But there are moments where you can see that Dano is not just a guy cashing in his chips from years of acting on a single movie. There may be a director in him yet, even if some of his impulses and beats late in the story don’t work particularly well. The eye is there.
There’s that scene where a crane shot shows Joe (Oxenbould) and a classmate, Ruth-Ann (Zoe Margaret Colletti) running through tall grass or wheat which is textured beautifully. He’s captured the wind through it, the sense of movement that ripples through the earth below while Joe and Ruth-Ann move counter to it. Later on, Joe goes with his mother, Jeanette (Mulligan), to the wildfire that his dad, Jerry (Gyllenhaal) is fighting. Joe sees some of the firefighters through the car window, and so do we. He’s already seen the footage of these firefighters on the news, and as his mother refuses to stop to ask them about Jerry, we see them through the wide windows of the station wagon. All they are, even from this closer distance, are figures in the middle of newsreel film. For as much interest as Jeanette has in finding her husband among these men, they may as well have gone to work or school, not bothered with this long drive, and caught it on the news at home. Joe finds something more in it than that, ultimately. It’s one of the movie’s several moments where something is happening elsewhere and the camera closes in on Joe instead, favoring his reaction for us first rather than giving us what he’s reacting to. It always does show us what he sees, which is why I’ve seen Bill Camp’s butt now, but it’s a sign of thoughtful direction. We are meant to understand this story via Joe, and his subjectivity is meant to be the one that we favor over Jeanette’s or Jerry’s. He is the one who can understand everything, for of the three main characters of this story Joe is the only one who can claim to have seen the others at their worst and to be able to trace those moments back to their geneses. He is there when Jeanette throws herself at Warren (Camp) in her “desperation dress” and there when Jerry dumps gas over Warren’s front porch in order to try to burn his place down. Warren, who has touched the face of God at 4,000 feet up, is there to see those rough moments but not what instigated them. Joe, who was there when his dad got fired (and whose face we saw as it happened), and who was there when Jeanette could look at her life at 34 and hate everything about her life from the name on down, knows.
Because Joe is the one we see through, most of the missteps in the movie come when the camera is fooling with us. That scene where the snow falls on him while he’s waiting for the bus so he can run away from home is, presumably, meant to be tricky. The bus blocks our view of Joe, and then the bus leaves and the bench is empty, and the camera swivels so we can see Joe booking it back home where he hopes his father will be. It’s not effective. So rarely are moments like that effective anyway, but Dano makes it even worse because the best moments in this movie have allowed us to see Joe’s thoughts rushing across his face. It’s a nice image, seeing him run home in the snow, but it’s also a fundamentally empty one. So too is the very novelistic moment at the end fundamentally empty, where Joe sets up a family portrait for his long-broken family. In our minds we can hear the monologue which ran over a montage earlier in the picture about how people come to the photography studio to create memories of something they want more than something that reflects reality, and it’s all very neat. The best versions of this idea are in Mike Leigh (Secrets and Lies, slightly cockeyed in Mr. Turner), but Leigh has the grace not to tell us the answer while he’s demonstrating the math. Wildlife does not close all that well, but it has enough moments early on to make it feel like a debut with serious promise.
There are three great performances in this movie and one very good one. Gyllenhaal, surprisingly, has the least to do, although some of the intensity that I think has become a real trademark for him in the past few years is here. I love that “BOY BOY BOY, BOY” line he has when he understands what his wife has been up to while he was away fighting the fire; it is very funny, and it is also terribly realistic. It is not often that people hold on to their gravitas while they’re being humiliated, and Jerry is no different in this situation. There is not quite enough of him, alas, for him to make a real impression on the movie. There’s a very strong Willy Loman impression we’re supposed to get—he uses the words “well-liked” in a conversation with his son, which was a klaxon—and that Loman stuff carries more of the character than I think Gyllenhaal is ultimately responsible for. Bill Camp is great in a small role. That talk Warren has with Joe about hearing the geese should feel like one of those inevitable moments one gets in indie movies—don’t shake your head, you know what I’m talking about—but Camp has such a fabulous voice, and there is such awesome light behind his glasses as he’s talking about it that you get what kind of magnetism he must have beyond his missing leg and his relative wealth. The Brinsons are not well-off, and the further we get into the movie we find out it’s because Jerry has no ability to keep a job and thus continues to punt his family across Big Sky country in search of some good job that he’ll fall into, or, more accurately, in search of a Shangri-La where he won’t feel like such a schmuck. The subtlety in Wildlife is not really about family or growing up, but about social class, and the way that the Brinsons in their lower social stratum cannot help but act like little filings in the presence of a magnet. Jerry is a nice guy, but he is as likely to have the complexity of that goose experience as he would be to turn into a goose himself, and given his other resentments (no job, cuckolding, the usual), a person like Warren stands as an affront. It’s not hard to imagine how this story might be vaguely intriguing for Jeanette, although one wonders whether or not she would hear this story at any point in the next five years if she ran off with Warren. But it’s another scene of many that shows Oxenbould’s talent. He has a great capacity to put his brain on his face: he is not much in this movie for sadness or anger, but he is great with wonder or hope. Oxenbould, surrounded by older and much more famous performers, holds up well; more impressively, he does so as the movie’s true lead actor doing the hard wordless work that is so often given to supporting characters.
The revelation for me in this movie is Carey Mulligan, who I always admire but have rarely been dazzled by; it may be that I simply haven’t seen her in the right parts. Jeanette is so plainspoken, and this is a mode in which Mulligan shines. We can watch her in her radiant form in the first twenty minutes or so of the movie, tousling hair, comforting, making dinner. Her unsexed domesticity hardly reins in her seriousness or her frankness, and neither does the fact that she has to take a job because her husband goes into a deadbeat spiral after being fired from his worthless job at the country club’s golf course. It’s when Jerry decides to express the pattern further, to run away from the problem and this time not even to bring his family along, that the brilliance explodes into darkness. The same frankness that she used as encouragement in the early parts of the picture turns into this sharp irony that is wielded at a moment’s notice. There’s that wonderful scene at a diner where Jeanette and Joe are talking about their names, and the might-have-been in that conversation turns from a joke (“La-di-da”) into a rebuke about how Joe’s mother will not, at thirty-four, remain the way she is much longer. There’s a danger in this performance, the snappish speed of a trap hidden under the barest layer of leaves.