While the narrative did become more interesting and tense towards the end, I felt that there was something lacking here.
May just have my favourite ending shot of the year, apart from being one of my favourite films of 2018.
The directorial debut of actor Paul Dano, Wildlife is based on the 1990 novel by Richard Ford, and is written for the screen by Dano and Zoe Kazan. Subtly depicting an Americana on the cusp of massive social upheaval, the film demonstrates the uncertainty with which second-wave feminism manifested itself at a grassroots level prior to really taking off in 1963. Although it's essentially a character study, the film also suggests the 1950s-style clean-cut, rigidly defined way of life, built around the perfect nuclear family wherein a wife must be subservient to her husband, is about to become a thing of the past. Understated, restrained, narratively precise, the film is emotional without being melodramatic, encouraging empathy without manipulating the audience.
Set in Great Falls, Montana in 1960, the film tells the story of the peripatetic Brinson family; father Jerry, mother Jeannette, and 14-year-old son Joe. When Jerry loses his job and chooses to head north to fight a forest fire, something is awaken in Jeanette, who, for the first time, allows herself to admit she has become deeply unhappy. Initially, Jeanette is depicted as a quintessential 1950s wife and mother, almost to the point of cliche. She knows that her (unspoken and unacknowledged) role in this patriarchal society is to hold the family together, and although she and Jerry seem to love one another, she clearly feels trapped by her domestic situation. So when Jerry takes off in a misguided attempt to reaffirm his masculinity by fighting a forest fire, something in Jeanette changes. Realising she has an opportunity, she makes a conscious decision to stop performing her role; she has woken up to find she is deeply unhappy despite attaining everything she once wanted. Determined to forge a new identity, she is adamant she won't become one of the "standing dead" (the term used for trees that survive a forest fire). The film may ostensibly be a coming-of-age drama, but Jeanette's existential crisis is the real subject matter.
Dano's directorial work is assured and subtle. For example, he often has characters walk off-screen to speak, whilst keeping the camera trained on Joe as he tries to listen, with the dialogue barely perceptible from just off the edge of the frame. As well as being an excellent use of off-screen space, this technique ties us rigidly to Joe's POV early on. Another very nice piece of direction is an early montage cutting between Jeanette riding her bike, Jerry driving the car, and Joe riding the bus, in which each character is facing a different direction. It's basic cinematic shorthand, showing instead of telling, but it's very well done. For the most part, however, Dano's direction is invisible, relying far more on static painterly compositions than camera movement (which is not to say the camera never moves), and I was often reminded of the work of Edward Hopper.
The acting, as you would expect, is superb. On paper, Jeanette and Warren Miller, an older man who becomes romantically interested in Jeanette, are very much the villains of the piece, but Carey Mulligan and Bill Camp's performances are so full of warmth that you can't look at them as antagonists, and the film itself never judges them. Camp plays Miller as both a letch but also someone of innate kindness, not an easy balancing act to pull off. Mulligan plays Jeanette as weary, older than her years, at times fragile, at times solid, both vulnerable and manipulative. Full of anger, she simply can't hold in her emotions any more. Unfortunately, in letting them out, she betrays Joe by forgetting he is only 14.
Of course, there are a few problems. Essentially a tale of marital angst, the narrative is not especially original - we've seen this story before, many times in fact, and for all the craft on display, Dano never really manages to say anything wholly original. Additionally, his measured direction is also too good in places - everything is so ordered, neat, and trim, that at times, the milieu doesn't seem lived-in, but more an abstract concept of what the period was like. The film could do with being a little messier in places, both in terms of direction and in terms of what's actually on-screen. Additionally, there are a few lines that sound great on paper, but which are just not the kind of things one says in real life, like, "I feel like I need to wake up, but I don't know what from, or what to".
On the one hand, Wildlife is about how society was changing in 1960, and on the other, about how that change manifests itself within the Brinson family, with Jeanette functioning in a synecdochical manner; our specific entry point, she is the individual that facilitates an examination of the masses. And yes, Dano may take his eye off the ball a couple of times, with a somewhat too picture-postcard perfection, but all in all, this is an excellent directorial debut.
I liked it, lets make it clear. It is a very good portrait of a family drama and the tones, both of colors and emotions, are just right, still the final punch doesn't know you out as I wished it would do. I would like to give 3 stars and 3/4, but as the wesiste doesn't have that option yet, I will settle for a the 1/2.
I think it was disconcerting to have attractive charismatic movie stars playing people who are a little dopey with small frustrated lives. But given that premise, I loved watching the tiny details of how everything in their lives disintegrated bit by bit. He should've been squelching her passion instead forest fires and trying to stubbornly prove something about himself. There is a tough ambiguity in the fact that she became a real harpy as he was trying to do a good thing for the the wrong reasons. It definitely leaves the audience struggling for where their sympathies should lie. The kid is a little bit of a stand-in for the audience who is just as confused. It is also his coming-of-age story.
Bill Camp as the seducer is one of my favorite actors. He takes on big and small role in theater and film. I thought he was fabulous walking the edge between taking advantage of a situation and just being a complete asshole.
It's hard to relax in a movie where everybody is unlikable. But I loved acting, the silences, and the cinematography and the discomfort of inhabiting a world I don't know and having to judge these dubious characters w/o much guidance.
I prefer to squirm than to cheer; it's more like life.