Wildlife ★★★½

I admire filmmakers that use film as a medium to make audiences contemplate their own lives. Paul Dano has demonstrated this ability with great strength in his directorial debut and is the latest established actor who has turned his hand to directing with this wonderful adaptation of Richard Ford’s novel Wildlife.

WildlifeThe film’s story is told from the viewpoint of Joe (Ed Oxenbould) a mature fourteen-year-old boy who admires his parents, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Jeanette (Carey Mulligan). Jeanette is a teacher by trade, and gives her son guidance with his studies, whereas Jerry wants him to excel in football (which Joe has no affinity towards). Joe often helps his parents, and one day whilst assisting his father with his job he witnesses him being fired. This is an intriguing moment for the film because the scene is told from Joe’s perspective. Jerry is offered his job back as his employers realise their mistake, but he refuses to concede out of pride stating, he “won’t work for people like that”. Much to Jeanette’s dissatisfaction, Jerry takes a low paid job away from home fighting wildfires.

Having the plot told through Joe’s reactions to his parents’ actions makes Wildlife an engrossing film to watch, as the audience see how a child’s life can suffer because of his guardians’ behaviour, and though I commend Dano for taking this approach, Oxenbould should be equally credited for his work. He displays a range of emotions throughout the runtime with extraordinary restraint, and delivers such a mature performance for an actor of his age. Gyllenhaal and Mulligan, captivating as ever, give solid turns, and the audience also empathise with their characters’ emotional battles.

Even though there are emotionally charged moments in Wildlife, they become more significant because a majority of the film is told thoughtfully. Dano exhibits great deliberation in every decision he has made in making his first feature. This also extends to the symbolism used in the film. The presence of wildfires seems to serve as an analogy for a sense of impending doom as flames draw ever nearer to the family’s home in Montana. Jerry believes he won’t be away too long. Like many of the townspeople, he thinks snow will soon arrive, but when it does it comes too late as it brings him home to devastating news. I found this use of the weather elements in a symbolic nature excellent, and it gives added power to the film’s themes.

It took me some time to be captivated by Wildlife, and I didn’t initially envision it making a deep impression on me, however, I left the cinema pondering the intriguing questions raised by the film’s events. It delivered an interesting story that made me consider how sometimes the people we idolize can break our hearts and cause us anguish, but there are also other poignant questions posed that will prompt audiences’ sympathies. Despite Wildlife dealing with disheartening circumstances, it does end with a hopeful feel.

Wildlife is an impressive first feature from Dano; he seems to have a great deal of understanding of how to handle and tell a story whilst displaying great dramatic weight and elegant artistry. I am keen to see what project he helms next, but until then I thoroughly recommend spending time with Wildlife.

Ian began working in film as one of the founding members of the Rochester Film Society, where he led the programming for films and curated screenings. Since moving into film criticism and writing for Cineccentric, he has provided coverage for various film festivals including London, Glasgow and the BFI Flare Film Festival. He is also the Communications Manager for the North East International Film Festival, where he helps acquire films. Ian particularly admires works from contemporary directors like Céline Sciamma, David Fincher, Steve McQueen and Nicolas Winding Refn.

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