WILDLIFE. Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ed Oxenbould, Bill Camp. Directed by Paul Dano. 105 minutes. Rated M (Occasional coarse language).

Joe (Ed Oxenbould) is a fourteen-year-old kid caught in the middle of his parents’ competing midlife crises. His dad Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), a proud man who is let go from his job as a golf pro at the local club, leaves his wife and child to go labour away on the front of a raging wildfire in Montana’s distant peaks. His Mum Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) reacts to the abandonment by taking up with a successful local businessman (Bill Camp), making no effort to hide anything from Joe and even bringing him along to a dinner at her his house. It’s an intimate drama that asks a lot of its four main players, and they are uniformly excellent. Both in concept and execution, it’s easy to see that this is a real “actors’ film”, so it comes as no surprise that it was co-adapted by Paul Dano (‘Little Miss Sunshine’, ‘There Will Be Blood’) and Zoe Kazan (‘Revolutionary Road’, ‘The Big Sick’) from the 1990 novel of the same name by Richard Ford. Dano, who also made his directorial debut on the film, exhibits a sure hand with his actors, whose confident performances say more about the comfort that they evidently felt working with Dano than any effusive press release ever could.

From the opening scenes, there’s a clear yet unshowy intelligence to the screenplay. The silences that punctuate Jerry and Jeanette’s conversations intimate plenty of unspoken feelings that have percolated over their 14-odd years of marriage. With Jerry’s entrenched need to feel like the sole provider, even when he’s jobless and lacking in prospects (the film is set in 1960), and Jeanette’s established history of pleasant acquiescence, their past has built a tinderbox for the film to ignite and observe. This intelligence relies on the audience to meet the film halfway as much as it does on the actors, whose portrayals reflect a well-worn familiarity with their roles and histories (one gets the sense that Dano and his cast squeezed every drop from whatever rehearsal time their budget allowed).

Joe’s relationship with his dad is fascinating, swerving violently from a sort of hero worship to helpless submission. He hangs on every piece of advice that Jerry doles out, even when it feels diametrically opposed to our sense of Joe’s personality. He only plays football because Jerry encourages it, the latter brushing off Joe’s expressed dislike of the game. In response, he tells him to make friends with his teammates by asking them personal questions (because people enjoy talking about themselves), but the prospect of Joe, a shy-ish kid at a new school, attempting such a thing feels intensely mortifying. When Jerry leaves, which Gyllenhaal’s melancholy restlessness and haunted eyes make feel like an inevitability, he tells Joe that he has a hum inside his head – “I need to do something about it.” And yet to Joe, his dad can’t really put a foot wrong. He is steadfastly devoted to his old man, always believing that Jerry’s decision to leave his family was as necessary and as important as he made it out to be.

Despite Jerry’s apparent blindness to his son’s personality, this loyalty that Joe has to his father is what anchors Jeanette to her past and to her husband. Even as Jeanette begins her queasy romance with car dealer Warren Miller, Joe is never afraid to talk explicitly about his father to them, keeping his mother earthbound. Bill Camp plays Miller with a pleasing matter-of-factness, which in the context is almost charming. He talks openly to Joe about Jerry and Jeanette as well, as though discussing his part in Jeanette’s infidelity with another mature adult. Miller treats Joe with the same disregard for his youth as his parents, forcing the teenager to grapple with concepts and realities far beyond his years. Dealing with these challenges as Joe, Ed Oxenbould, the young Australian actor that might be familiar to local audiences after starring in the homegrown smash ‘Paper Planes’, delivers his best performance yet. He brilliantly conveys the unmoored confusion of a youth whose world is totally upended. Later in the film, when he eats a piece of pie at a pub while talking about a touchy topic with his returned father, there’s a moment where you can actually see the dessert turn to ashes in Joe’s mouth. It’s largely down to Oxenbould’s restrained but powerful emoting. There’s a bit of a young Dano about him in fact (undoubtedly a compliment), both in his face and in his presence, down to the strange blend of awkward reserve and emotion that he projects. He is wonderful, and this should anoint him as a young actor very much in demand among mainstream and arthouse directors.

Dano’s directing craft is not showy but it is excellent, from his consistent visuals (look at how he loves to centre his subjects or frame them in close-ups) to the acutely sensitive editing, which lends an emotional depth to the quietest moments. But ultimately, it’s his work with his cast that most impresses. In addition to the strength of his three leading men, his collaboration with Carey Mulligan has engendered nothing short of a tour-de-force turn from the celebrated actress. Mulligan’s Jeanette is bruised, jaded, frightened yet self-possessed, needy yet possessing admirable agency. “What kind of man leaves his wife and child in such a lonely place?” she asks Joe, but Mulligan has already said everything that she thinks about the man that she married, quietly transmitting her history of disappointments through loaded pauses and diplomatic answers. As she latches on to her abandonment, we watch her transformation through Joe’s eyes, but Mulligan never makes it histrionic. Jeanette is a mess of contradictions, but she’s utterly real and a tragic figure.

Some way into the film, as Jeanette and Joe discuss the fires that Jerry has left them to fight, she tells him about how local fauna have adapted to their fire-prone habitat. Their offspring are not always so lucky, she adds: “sometimes the little ones get confused and burn up.” This observation also beautifully condenses and conveys the tragedy at the core of this story, as Joe is simply obliterated in the crossfire of his parents’ decaying relationship, incinerated by the passionate choices made on a whim. Neither of them really sees or considers him in these moments, but in Dano’s capable hands, you won’t be able to look away from Joe’s journey, and it will sit with you long after you’ve exited the theatre.

Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Out November 1.

Roadshow Films.

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