Combustible Celluloid
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With: Carey Mulligan, Ed Oxenbould, Jake Gyllenhaal, Bill Camp
Written by: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, based on a novel by Richard Ford
Directed by: Paul Dano
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic material including a sexual situation, brief strong language, and smoking
Running Time: 104
Date: 10/18/2018

Wildlife (2018)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Fire Escapes

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The directorial debut of actor Paul Dano, this airless, dispiriting domestic drama is somewhat saved by its dedication to fine acting, and on moments of stillness in which such acting can flourish.

In Wildlife, in the early 1960s, teen Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould) has moved to a new house with his parents and is trying to do his best in school. But his father, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), loses his job as a golf pro. Meanwhile, Joe's mother, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), gets a job teaching swimming, and Joe himself begins working in a photography shop. After much sulking, Jerry decides to take a job as a volunteer firefighter, battling an enormous blaze threatening to take over the countryside.

Jeanette doesn't take this news well and begins to act erratically. She drags Joe to a dinner at the home of wealthy Warren Miller (Bill Camp) and keeps Joe there for hours as she allows herself to be seduced. Miserable, Joe counts the days until the snows begin and his father can come home, in the hopes that things can be set right again.

Based on a novel by Richard Ford, but feeling rather unlike Ford at the same time, Wildlife sometimes plays like a David Lynchian nightmare, wherein characters stiffly sit around and speak banalities that cover up their true, roiling emotions. It's probably supposed to take place in a world before people spoke so openly about their feelings, but at the same time, it can't seem to find the connection between the external actions and the internal desires.

Gyllenhaal isn't onscreen long enough to flesh out his character, but he has some touching moments, especially his goodbye to his son before he leaves for the fire. Mulligan is the movie's centerpiece. With her "old soul" and pain-filled eyes, she takes the disconnect between her life and her inner turmoil and squeezes it together into madness. Her deterioration is truly disturbing, and somehow touching too.

The young Oxenbould is a passive character, mostly observing, mostly obedient, but he allows quiet, revealing moments of hurt to seep through, and he's heartbreaking. Character actor Camp is also quite good, somehow making his character into more of an enigma than a creep. It's not an easy watch, but Wildlife is an interesting calling card for Dano.

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