Paul Dano tackles his own vision of American Pastoral with his directorial debut Wildlife, adapted from Richard Ford’s novel with co-writer Zoe Kazan (Ruby Sparks, The Big Sick). In 1960 Montana, Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould) straddles his parents’ (Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal) marital disaster in a glimpse of American expectations gone awry. Mulligan stuns as a woman abandoned when her husband takes up the treacherous life of fighting wildfires rather than settling for a local “teenager’s” job. Her lively, pin drop impulsivity bunks the standard troubled housewife motif; dragging the nights of too much wine into self-destructive measures, particularly her scenes stepping-out with a fantastically upsetting Bill Camp. Gyllenhaal, absent through much of the film, fills in the expectations of American manhood with the foolhardiness of an obstinate child left off the baseball team.
Oxenbould in a refreshingly vulnerable coming of age story sneaks in the quietest scene stealing performance of the year. Clutching onto childhood in this post-war family, he gradually claws himself into independence from needing parents still too young themselves to offer the unending guidance he anticipated having beyond 14 years old. His mother still wants to be the rodeo beauty; his father can’t swallow his pride. Joe fills in the gaps in the cabinet and the leaks in the plumbing where his parents have diverted attention into other ventures. A stunning breakout of youthful innocence more converted than lost.
Dano imbues subtleties into the movement of his scenes: a telephone nudged higher; two glances toward an empty chair–one lecherous for fulfillment, one grieving its emptiness. The parts don’t always fit together–vibrant closeups mixed with naturally lit settings don’t always make sense–but the parts create an intimate, humanized version of a Douglas Sirk melodrama. An intriguing entry where the apple pie has gone sour, Wildlife empties the American Dream into a nightmare of unfulfilled hopes, both harrowing and cautiously optimistic in a homey sort of way.