When you think of Paul Dano, you probably think of the quirky actor from movies like There Will Be Blood. When you think of Zoe Kazan, you likely think of her doe-eyed, slightly goofball turns in The Big Sick and other films. You probably find it befuddling to envision this off-screen couple's private life (my brain shorts out). And you've probably never thought of either as a serious — much less seriously gifted — filmmaker, but guess what. They're major-league moguls!
Dano makes an impressive directorial debut with Wildlife. He and Kazan adapted Richard Ford's 1990 novel, which they optioned in 2012. Who knew they were so enterprising and cerebral? Don't they have red carpets to walk or lifestyle companies to launch?
Carrie Mulligan cinches a Best Actress Oscar nod with her dazzlingly calibrated performance as Jeanette Brinson, a thirtysomething wife and mother who comes undone in 1960s Great Falls, Mont. Jake Gyllenhaal does some of the most coiled and quietly electrifying work of his career as her husband, Jerry, a family man who watches his family fracture. As their 14-year-old son, Joe, Ed Oxenbould is the discovery of the year.
The strange, wrenching tale is told through the eyes of the boy. Early on, Joe watches hopefully as his parents attempt to put down roots. This is the latest stop in a succession of lost jobs and fresh starts. Jeanette and Jerry appear happy and affectionate. She tends to their rented home. He works as a golf pro. Until, like that, he's fired. "I'm too well liked" is his takeaway.
The look on Joe's face grows progressively less hopeful as things fall apart. A wildfire rages in the mountains outside town. Jerry gets the notion that fighting it will fix something in him and departs to do so. The picture of June Cleaver perkiness and propriety to this point, Jeanette promptly spirals into a breakdown that would leave Tennessee Williams positively emerald with envy. It's Mulligan's finest hour.
The teen watches in shock, then horror, as his mother unravels. The actress conveys whole worlds of longing, dread and bewilderment with a look or gesture and brings Ford's spare dialogue to crackling life. Here the brilliance of the screenplay is fully revealed. The couple didn't merely pare the novel to its essential lines. In places, they improved them. "Did your mother do something you wouldn't like to have to tell me about?" is far more elegant than Ford's version. And, yes, she did.
Dano and Kazan don't stop there. Events are reordered, characters added, the ending concocted out of whole cloth. It all works spectacularly. An understated yet devastating chronicle of personal disintegration, Wildlife proves, if anything, an even more curious work on the screen than on the page.
Watching it unfold, you may find yourself reminded that Dano has spent an extraordinary amount of time in the company of eminent directors. He's clearly made a point of picking up a thing or three from the likes of Ang Lee, Paolo Sorrentino, Spike Jonze and Richard Linklater. It's the sensibility of Paul Thomas Anderson, however, that most vividly permeates everything from Dano's affinity for Americana and period detail to his framing of, say, vast plains through the windows of a hurtling train.
His muted palette and astute use of silence perfectly suit Ford's knowing nightmare, immeasurably more than Anderson's aesthetic proved compatible with Thomas Pynchon's in his 2014 adaptation of Inherent Vice. Life is wild and full of surprises. Now who looks like the Master?