Wildlife review – Carey Mulligan saves this mannered domestic drama

Actor Paul Dano’s first film as director shows promise, but the dysfunctional family at its heart fails to fully engage

Paul Dano makes his directorial debut with this modest adaptation of Richard Ford’s 1990 novel. Co-written with Dano’s partner, the actress Zoe Kazan, it tells the story of a struggling family in 1960s Montana through the eyes of its youngest member. Joe (Ed Oxenbould) is a mild-mannered 14-year-old at the beck and call of his volatile father, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal). Ambitious regarding his son, but lacking in self-awareness as far as his own career is concerned, Jerry gets sacked from the local golf club where he’s a groundskeeper. His wife, Jeanette (a fire-powered Carey Mulligan, in some truly fabulous outfits), holds things together at home, flattering her husband’s ego and landing a gig as a swimming instructor to help pay the bills, but when Jerry takes a job fighting forest fires in the mountains, she and Joe trial living as a single-parent family.

“What kind of man leaves his wife and child in such a lonely place?” muses Mulligan’s increasingly reckless Jeanette: one of several questions preoccupying the film. How much money is a man worth? (a question Jerry asks after being fired); how much love can a man express? (“men love each other, too”, he says, giving his son a kiss); and what kind of a man might a boy become with parents like these?

Joe is warned of the smoke from the nearby fires, which are described as preventable, encouraging the audience to sniff for smoke signals regarding the film’s central marital breakdown, and positing the larger question of its inevitability. Clearly, Kazan has the chops (this screenwriting credit is her second, following 2012’s Ruby Sparks, in which she starred opposite Dano), but with the exception of Mulligan, whose sharp-edged performance begins to overpower the otherwise muted, rather mannered film, it feels too neatly mapped as a whole.

Watch the trailer for Wildlife.


Simran Hans

The GuardianTramp

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