d. Paul Dano (2018)
The Criterion Collection

I love it when this happens: I sit down with a film for the first time. I know little about it. I have no expectations (or, if I’m being honest, no expectations). Then I am enraptured, and the film becomes one of the most exciting discoveries I’ve had in a while. That’s what happened with Paul Dano’s 2018 debut, Wildlife, which was recently released on Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection. I loved everything about this film and everything about this solid release.

I probably had no expectations because this is Dano’s directorial debut. I know him primarily as the young actor he was in, say, Little Miss Sunshine or There Will Be Blood. It’s not that I didn’t think he could direct a good film; I just had no expectation it would turn out so well. There’s a soft, observant, compassionate hand behind this film, and I attribute a great deal of that to Dano.

Of course, Dano isn’t the only one involved who deserves credit. In The Criterion Collection release we get a few supplements that introduce us to others involved.

First, this is an adaptation of Richard Ford’s 1990 novel of the same name. I have not read the novel (or any Ford novel), so his name didn’t necessarily call to me — indeed, due to his reputation this may have been a reason I had lower expectations and expected a much gloomier, pessimistic tale about a doomed family. One of the supplements is a 45-minute conversation between Dano and Ford, recorded when they were at a screening at the Lincoln Center, and I think I have Ford all wrong.

Next, Dano wrote the adaptation with his partner Zoe Kazan; I think she’s a great actress — absolutely love her work with the Coen Brothers in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs — but again did not have any expectation that the two of them would write this delicate and gentle screenplay. Included with the release is a 25-minute interview, entitled Wildlife: From Script to Screen, with Dano and Kazan. Again, their partnership seems inspired.

For actors, we have Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan, again two actors I like quite a bit but I didn’t expect the levels they reach here. We also have the young actor Ed Oxenbould, from whose gentle, hopeful, but wary perspective we see most of what goes on. While Oxenbould does not show up in any of the supplements, both Gyllenhaal and Mulligan show up and discuss their work in the film.

To help shape and capture Dano’s vision, we get a crew working at the top of their game, including cinematographer Diego García, production designer Akin McKenzie, costume designer Amanda Ford, editor Matthew Hannam, and composer David Lang. I didn’t know any of these individuals by name, but their work in Wildlife is exceptional. There are a couple of great supplements (very well done supplements, I must say) where each of them discuss their work on the film (The World of Wildlife, a 16-minute feature on the production itself; and Conversations Post Production, a 26-minute feature on, you guessed it, post-production). They all seem proud of what they did, and there is a sense they are proud of each others’ work. When I finished the film, I was deeply moved and I was so happy to find out whom to thank and to see that it appears to have been a collaboration where everyone had something to say and was heard. I say their work paid off.

Another central player in Wildlife, for me, at least, is the setting. The film takes place in Montana, a beautiful state. While many of the scenes, particularly around the home, were filmed in Oklahoma, the filmmakers did plenty to bring us to the Big Sky State.

The bottom line is that this feels like a film from the heart. I found it touching and hopeful, even though the premise of the film is such that I would never have expected to feel uplifted.

Now, what is that premise? In a nutshell, the film is about the Brinson family. It’s 1960, and they’ve just moved to Great Falls, Montana, where Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) has a job at a golf club. Jean (Carey Mulligan) stays home and offers her support in the expected 1960 way. Their teenage son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) is at a new school, and his father thinks maybe because he’s new he’s not getting a fair opportunity to shine on the local football team. It’s late summer or early fall, and there are forest fires raging not too far away.

While the Brinson family looks solid on the outside, and there is all indications they would like to be solid, there are indications they came to Great Falls for a restart. That restart is doomed to fail. Jerry gets fired from his job, causing his own major existential crisis. Who is he if not the local golf pro? Who is he if not the man who can support his family? Who is in his mid thirties he doesn’t know who he is? The 1950s and 1960s don’t seem like a good time to wonder about all of this, particularly in a young family in a small town.

Jean tries her best to exude strength and hope. She isn’t worried, she says, though Mulligan does a fine job letting just enough stress come through. When she says she’ll go to work, it’s a matter of everyone chipping in. But this leads her to her own transformation as she realizes she didn’t know who she was either.

The distance grows.

We watch most of this through the young, compassionate, intelligent, and observant eyes of Joe, who finds himself trying to support both the family but also both his mom and dad individually. I think that’s where the film gets its strength. We understand that Joe wants his family to be strong and ideal. But we also see that he loves both parents individually, and while he does not condone their behavior — which he finds embarrassing at times — he seems to understand what they are going through.

In Mark Harris’s fine essay accompanying the release, he says that at the end of the film, “It’s a measure of [Dano’s] great compassion and empathy as a filmmaker that you wish them well, and believe they’ve earned it.” I agree. And I think Joe feels the same way toward his parents. It doesn’t discount the tragedy, and I don’t think the hope is false. Something potentially beautiful and long-lasting was burned down, but there is still room for growth.

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