Director Paul Dano brilliantly captures Richard Ford’s subtle yet unsparing depiction of life in all of its complexity, beauty and heartache.
It’s scary when someone makes a movie based on one of your favorite novels.
What if the transition from page to screen just doesn’t work? What if, gulp, it’s a disaster?
Along comes “Wildlife,” based on Richard Ford’s devastatingly poignant 1990 novel. Ford (“Independence Day”) has a great talent for writing with understated power, but could that poetry translate onto the screen?
In the hands of first-time director Paul Dano, yes.
More like: Yes!
Dano, known for his acting (“Little Miss Sunshine,” “There Will Be Blood,” “Youth”), brilliantly captures Ford’s subtle yet unsparing depiction of life in all of its complexity, beauty and heartache. As with Ford’s book (and his other work), the screen version of “Wildlife” (written by Dano and his life partner, actress Zoe Kazan) leaves you feeling like you’ve lived through something both ordinary and profound.
The story, told through the perspective of 14-year-old Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould), is set in 1960 Montana. Joe and his parents, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), have moved around a lot. Jerry, it’s strongly implied, has struggled to find his place in the world – to find and keep a job worth keeping. Jeanette has been the supportive stay-at-home-after-home wife and mom, though there’s an underlying edge to her that suggests she’s not a June Cleaver type.
When Jerry loses his job as the resident pro at a local golf course, the marriage starts to crack. Joe, frustrated, seems lost and uninspired, and Jeanette, while saying encouraging things and seeking a job herself, appears to have become resentful about how unsettled their lives have become.
Joe, a sensitive boy, observes the dynamics of his parents’ marriage with apprehension, with a look that increasingly seems to ask, “Why?”
When Jerry takes a temporary job away from home fighting a forest fire for $1 a day, over more practical possibilities, matters only get worse. And Joe gets caught in the middle.
This is a different type of coming-of-age story. It’s not about a first romance, or a youth finding a clear direction in life. It’s about a boy coming to grips with life’s sometimes cruel uncertainty while realizing that his parents are far from perfect; that, though loved, he is not necessarily at the center of their lives; that they aren’t just his “parents” but play other roles in life, too.
“Wildlife” captures that feeling children or adolescents get if they overhear their parents fighting. It captures that feeling of confusion and fear, of insecurity, of innocence lost.
The film, like the novel, like much great art, re-creates emotional suffering with a deep, underlying empathy for humanity. And it’s not just for young Joe, it’s for Jerry, for Jeanette (played with extraordinary complexity by Mulligan), even for the “other man” (Bill Camp). It’s for all of us.