Wildlife, an adaptation of Richard Ford’s 1990 novel, “finds Paul Dano transporting his usual reserve as a performer (bellowing country preachers excepted) from one side of the camera to the other,” writes the A.V. Club’s A. A. Dowd. “Set in the suburbs of 1960s Montana, the film unfolds chiefly from the perspective of a teenage boy (Ed Oxenbould) watching from the sidelines as his father (Jake Gyllenhaal), who simmers with shame and resentment about not being able to hold down a job, and his mother (Carey Mulligan), increasingly gripped by discontent, drift quickly apart.” And Dowd appreciates the “elegantly straightforward style that’s miles removed from the flashiness of most American indie debuts.”
“Working from the spare and beautifully observed script he co-wrote with Zoe Kazan—and directing with all the confidence you might expect from someone who’s spent the last two decades living the best film school imaginable—Dano crafts an unsparing portrait that’s harsh and humane in equal measure,” writes IndieWire’s David Ehrlich. “Joe doesn’t know how he feels about the world burning down around him, and Wildlife respects that uncertainty, framing his story with a rigid touch while burnishing it into myth.”
“Dano has worked with the likes of Denis Villeneuve, Bong Joon-ho, Rian Johnson, Steve McQueen, and Paul Thomas Anderson, but the past collaborations that he seems to draw the most from for Wildlife are Ang Lee and Kelly Reichardt,” suggests Jordan Raup at the Film Stage. “Blending the emotional subtleties of a drama like the The Ice Storm and the understated appreciation for location in all of Reichardt’s films, especially Certain Women, it’s a beautifully articulated drama in which every line has captivating subtext, every frame is attractive, and each camera movement has intention. One of the smartest hires for the project, Cemetery of Splendor and Neon Bull cinematographer Diego García captures both the magic hour Montana vistas and the inner domestic drama with a painterly touch.”
Screen’s Tim Grierson notes, too, that “Dano prefers static camera setups and uncluttered frames, emphasizing the mundane nature of the drama, which only allows the increasing darkness of this tale to become more upsetting.”
“Oxenbould wears the sadness of a wounded animal on his just-about-mature face but, as Jeanette blossoms into a flirtatious woman, Mulligan plays her as if her feet can hardly touch the ground,” writes Jordan Hoffman for the Guardian. “It’s a very technical performance, lots of glimpses and witty lines thrown away in a lower vocal register. There are no shortage of laughs in Wildlife, but this is a fundamentally melancholy picture.”
“Dano handles all this material impressively, yet in the end there’s no denying that there’s something a little studied about Wildlife,” finds Variety’s Owen Gleiberman. “It goes back to Richard Ford’s writing, which is suggestive and metaphorical in an amorphous way. (It’s like Raymond Carver with a deliberately blurred lens.) Dano has altered some of the novel, and focused the movie into the tale of how this family, coming apart at the seams, embodies the ways that the culture had to change.”
“There’s not a lot here besides a teenager’s point of view on his parents drifting apart, and the moon-faced Oxenbould’s reactions—to hearing his father get fired, to catching his mother with another man—have to do a lot more heavy lifting than he really seems up to handling,” finds Scott Renshaw in the Salt Lake City Weekly.
“Unusually restrained and unemphatic by contemporary standards, the film possesses an integrity and economy of means that earns respect,” writes the Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy, who allows himself “a bit of historical cinematic nitpicking” by noting that “the double-bill shown to be playing at the downtown Great Falls movie theater, North to Alaska and Butterfield 8, could not have been possible in the summer or fall of 1960, as both films opened in November of that year.”
More from Nick Allen (RogerEbert.com), Jordan Ruimy (Playlist, B-), and Steve Pond (TheWrap). And Wildlife is one of the films Eric Hynes and Nicolas Rapold discuss in a recent episode of the Film Comment Podcast (29’06”).
“As a first-time filmmaker,” Dano tells the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan, “I definitely didn't anticipate how much determination—really committing yourself—it takes just to get to the first day of photography. We fought like hell and we got there. It was a crazy thing to do and I can't wait until I do it again.”
Update, 1/25: “We’ve waited a long time for the major Carey Mulligan screen performance that had to be coming, and here it is, at last,” writes David Edelstein at Vulture. “In the course of an amazing and horrifying sequence, a dinner at [Warren] Miller’s [Bill Camp] house to which Joe has been invited, Jeanette launches into a drunken, seductive dance: She’s telling Miller she’s available, and her son, too. Mulligan conveys both the shame and Ann-Margret-like exuberance of Jeanette’s surrender—if she’s going to do it, she’s thinking, she’s not going to hold back. Later, she will ask her son, ‘If you’ve got a better plan for me, tell me. I don’t have one.’”
Update, 1/27: Filmmaker sends its set of questions to cinematographer Diego García.