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TIFF Review: "Wildlife"

by Chris Feil

Paul Dano’s directorial debut Wildlife is a period domestic drama with a fire in its gut. It’s the kind of piercing portrait of a family that makes you want to marinate in all of its surprising details just as you desperately want to escape its breathlessly realized pain.

Picturing an emotionally desolate suburban America of shitty lawns and ranch style homes, Dano strikes a balance between toughness and compassion, cruelty and honesty. It's as if its family was built on the fault line of two massive tectonic plates and no matter how violent the inevitable eruption that is to come, it might be sadly better that they be ripped apart. For everyone.

The Visit’s Ed Oxenbould stars as Joe, the teenage son caught in the crosshairs of his parents’ disintegrating marriage. Their home is already a silently tumultuous one, with the whisperings of several long-distance relocations and the father Jerry’s pride affecting his ability to obtain and hold onto a job. Joe’s mother Jeanette speaks in doting, bolstering statements about her floundering husband, selling a conviction of the era’s tradition on upholding the male ego in the home. But something snaps in their new Montana life when Jerry leaves the family to fight wildfires for meager pay, with Jeanette reaching a tipping point in her passive role. It’s her mask of performative domesticity that’s burnt to the ground, Joe left helpless to watch and, more crucially, listen.

Carey Mulligan as the fractious Jeanette is simply her finest hour yet, delivering a performance of matter-of-fact, shattered pretenses. Her Jeanette moves decisively, whether feigning enthusiasm for her husband’s “beautiful intentions” or later shedding the identity that had been chosen for her, with an ability to surprise herself and not always positively. Mulligan alternates her frankness with a terror for her rediscovered self and her limited options, particularly as she draws herself closer to a new well-off man played by Bill Camp. Both dryly hilarious and unpredictable, Mulligan creates something quite specific in how Jeanette copes with her circumstance that can’t be denied.

“You’re wasting your life there watching me, sweetheart” she tells her son as he tries to figure her out, at once very right and very wrong. Mulligan maintains something unknowable in Jeanette, but that won’t stop us from studying every pore of this fascinating, deeply rewarding performance.

For those from disillusioned homes, there is something spookily familiar in the relationships Dano molds onscreen, a sense memory experience that the new director’s intuition delivers with appropriate interpersonal confusion and sudden viciousness. Adapted from the Richard Ford novel by Dano and Zoe Kazan, the film is a feat of staging that plays like unnatural memories of a broken home burned in the brain - Jerry’s crouch against the door as things go south, Jeanette’s stoneface as she hangs her laundry, fateful glances through windows and doorways.

And mostly, the film moves soulful through the textures of the parents that Joe cannot fathom. Gyllenhaal gives Jerry a blind rage of contradictory expressiveness and evasion, creating an openness that’s also a trapdoor for Joe’s longing for parental closeness. And though Jeanette reveals the strifes of her marriage to her son, she does so in a language he doesn’t yet understand. Somewhere amid Wildlife’s storm, Dano manages to make a film of grace notes, and something close to forgiveness. And, miraculously, acceptance.

Grade: A

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Reader Comments (20)

Carey and Jake will probably end up the season with no awards. It's almost a tradition.

September 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

I know that Carey Mulligan don't have an Oscar, but she have a carrier and this means more when u pass away this world.

She is the best actress of her generation, oustanding actress on Broadway and TV.

I look at her and always remember: if more and more actors and actress be like her and tried to have better roles and movies / work in her resume, what a better world we all shall live.

September 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJon

I do want to see this though I won't be surprised if Jake nor Carey get any Oscar nods.

September 11, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

very much looking forward to seeing!

September 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCharles O

only thing in Mulligan’s way is the film itself. No sane person would want to watch this film for enjoyment/pleasure.

These type of unwatchable films with actor showcases used to be right in oscar’s sweet spot. Now most people realize WTF they are doing to themselves and stay the hell away. If I was a voter I’d force myself to watch it (for the actors’ sake) so hopefully enough do here for Mulligan’s sake.

September 11, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterhuh

She should have an Oscar for Shame.

September 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTr

I really like her as an actress and hope this film will help her become more recognizable.

September 11, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

Jon: Carey Mulligan? Actress of Her Generation? Balls! I'd seriously hope someone identified as the "Actress of her Generation" had at least a bit more range than Mulligan, an (overall) good but not great actress (great in Shame, but okay or worse everywhere else) with little to no range. The only difference between her and, oh, Joe Pesci, is that her specific lack of range isn't "thug." Saoirse Ronan? That I could buy. Brie Larson? That I could also buy.

September 11, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

God, Best Actress is going to be a bloodbath this year.

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

Range is such an overrated criteria to hold actors to.

Also it's laughable to include Larson or Ronan in any "best of" talks.

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJess

Sometimes - in fact often - I dislike a film personally but understand what its fans see in it.

The reviews for Wildlife have me completely at sea.

I honestly don't understand how someone could sit through it and see anything beyond blandness, cliche and first-time-filmmaker ineptitude. Indie-itis defined.

All of it feels microwaved.

And there's not a single moment that actually feels like it takes place in the 50s. Or whatever era it's meant to be set in.

I wouldn't say it's a terrible film - it more or less held my attention - especially the rare sections that didn't revolve around an endless/inexpressive/pointless closeup on the wooden teenage lead.

And Mulligan is indeed excellent. In fact I'm dying to see whatever film she's acting in, because the quality and pitch of her performance is just so disconnected. It's like there's no architecture around it.

Surely it was obvious from page 10 of draft 1 that the teenage son's is absolutely the least interesting/meaningful POV imaginable?

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered Commentergoran

I also agree that Carey Mulligan is the actress of her generation. I've been saying this since 2014.

Conservatively speaking, she's the best actress born in 1985.

I don't know an actress who is as selective as her. As I've said it before, she rocks the most impressive actress Metacritic score.

My favourite performance of hers is Never Let Me Go.

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterYavor

For that generation, Keira Knightley is a better actress than Carey Mulligan. Period.

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterIBEATMERYL

Mulligan is inconsistent but she was WOWZA in Shame. So that earns her a lot of goodwill in my book but she still needs to prove herself more before we call her the actress of her generation (her age group is stacked with oscar nominated talent alone). This film looks to be a big step-up from her typical work.

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterhuh

For such a bland actress as most claim there sure are strong opinions about her.I would nominate her twice in 2009 and 2011 she has been fine if nothing more in other stuff I have seen her in

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

"Also it's laughable to include Larson or Ronan in any "best of" talks."

Tell it to the New York Film Critics Circle. Only she, Garbo, de Havilland, Jane Fonda, and Liv Ullmann have won their Best Actress prize twice in a three-year period.

Some of us prefer actresses with charisma. For the ones who enjoy watching paint dry, there's Carey Mulligan.

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

y'all... i haven't been totally sold on Carey Mulligan but she's GREAT in this movie. If she brings this much fire to future performances, I'm in.

September 12, 2018 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Gawd, art is so subjective. I WANT to like Carey Mulligan, but in truth, I've been bored by her performances; they're not reaching me in the way I wish they would (see her recent turn in in Collateral for example.) If we're going for a generation thing, I much prefer Keira Knightley and Tatiana Maslany.

That said, I'm always interested in seeing an actor's first directorial debut. And I liked Zoe Kazan's Ruby Sparks. But, marital discord movies also depress me.

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPam

I believe Saoirse Ronan is a better actress and no doubt the best of her generation.
@Suzanne. Meryl Streep also got two NYFCCA in a three-year period. That was in 2009 and 2011. As to Liv Ullmann, she actually won 3 awards in 5 years: 1972, 1976 and 1976.

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMarcos

I think all the debate over "best actress of her generation" is a bit futile--they're all great! We each of us have our favorites, of course, but isn't it a bit outdated (and meritless) to think we can rank such immensely talented actors as objectively and categorically "better" or "worse" than another?

That being said, if you can't appreciate how truly exquisite Carey Mulligan is, I feel sorry for you, because you're missing out on a lot. I saw her one woman play in New York four times and was bowled over every single time by what she accomplished. The fact that she only has one Oscar nomination (for a performance she should have won for, btw) is criminal. Whether or not Wildlife earns her another nod (if there's any justice, it will), if she continues to turn in work as raw and nuanced and affecting as her performance in the film, we'll all be very lucky.

September 12, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJes V.

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