‘Wildlife’ transcends Oscar trappings with slow-burn drama and Carey Mulligan

Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Wildlife.’ — film still

Wildfires rage in the hills surrounding a small Montana town in the 1960s. A father, humiliated by his boss while working at a golf course, joins a group of firefighters battling the blaze for weeks on end at $1 an hour. His wife resents her husband’s pride and temporary desertion of his family, and becomes determined to prove she is self-sufficient — even if it means putting her marriage in jeopardy. Their bright 14-year-old son is caught in the middle; having always put his parents on a pedestal, his ideal of them — and having the perfect, middle-class family — splinter before his eyes.

As FilmScene continues to spotlight award-worthy films both old and new, Wildlife fits in snugly with the bunch. It’s also one of at least five Oscar-buzzy dramas directed by an actor-turned-director this year, joining Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born, Jonah Hill’s Mid90s and Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased, the latter still in its FilmScene run. Paul Dano was at the helm here, and, for better or worse, he’s echoing the tone of There Will Be Blood and 12 Years a Slave more than Little Miss Sunshine and Swiss Army Man, all fabulous films featuring Dano the actor.

“Entertaining” is not a word I would use to describe Wildlife, which sounds pretty damning; entertainment value is, understandably, a make-or-break for most movie-goers. (People who thought Venom was worth their time and money are probably — probably — not the same people intent to catch Wildlife and its ilk). Dano’s directorial debut doesn’t stun, thrill, titillate or move one to tears. But it succeeds as a particular type of Oscar darling: a period piece with nuanced performances, a small cast of characters, dialogue reminiscent of a staged play, lovely mid-20th century set pieces and themes related to family and class.

The word to best describe Wildlife is “understated” — from the characterizations to the cinematography, but especially the action. This is in part due to the fact the story is told from the perspective of Joe, a rather unremarkable teen whose personality traits consist of adoring his parents and having a mild interest in photography. With all due respect to actor Ed Oxenbould, who does a fine job, I’d bet Joe was purposefully kept bland in order for the audience to project themselves onto him, and to serve as a down-to-earth foil for his far more charismatic parents, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) and Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal).

I’ll refrain from describing them further, because watching Mulligan and Gyllenhaal (but especially Mulligan) reveal the depths of their characters across the film’s 104-minute run time is by far the greatest delight of Wildlife.

Plot-wise, Wildlife is admirably restrained. There is far less wildfire action than you’d see in any news piece about the devastating Camp Fire in California, but what we do get — faraway billows of smoke, and, when Jeanette takes Joe on a leisurely drive into the foothills to see what all the fuss is about, the thunderous sound of trees crackling and burning — is effectively ominous.

Screenwriters Dano and Zoe Kazan resist the temptation to pull a Manchester by the Sea and center the drama around an extreme, freak tragedy to ensure an emotional reaction out of the audience and an easy explanation for their characters’ pain and conflict. That’s not to say Wildlife is without drama or an exciting climax, but the stakes are always firmly rooted in reality. Manchester by the Sea felt like the story of an unenviable family living a few towns over who made the news after a horrible accident; Wildlife felt like the story of your family, or your parent’s family, or your neighbor’s, or, in a sense, America’s. (Sorry, platitudes about the false promise of the American dream are inevitable in reviews of Oscar bait-y movies. Excuse me, films.)

One could call Wildlife Oscar bait, but I don’t think Dano or the cast are pandering to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In fact, while the awards buzz around Wildlife will certainly help its box office, it may have a negative effect on viewers’ experience of it. The film is so poignantly subtle that the prestige the Academy Awards tend to bestow upon their contenders seems to, paradoxically, cheapen Dano’s work. It’s thanks to this awards conversation that I find myself lumping Wildlife in with the other rather joyless Oscar favorites Beautiful Boy and Boy Erased, even though Wildlife is far less formulaic and heavy-handed. (I’m on team comedy-drama this year. Godspeed, Eighth Grade and Can You Ever Forgive Me?)

Wildlife was great, and I’m sure I’ll talk and hear more about it in the coming months, particularly regarding Mulligan’s red-letter performance. But with so many great films yet to be screened and seen this year — including Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, which FilmScene Programming Director Rebecca Fons called “life-changing” — I can’t help but channel my inner Ariana Grande: thank u, next.

Check the FilmScene schedule to catch a screening of Wildlife.