Issue 4, Semester 2
By Valerie Ng
Paul Dano’s debut feature Wildlife, which opened the Melbourne International Film Festival on 2 August, is a simmering, disquieting drama of suburban isolation and economic anxiety in 1960s Montana. A slow, crawling piece, it dawdles on the irrepressible disintegration of the Brinson family for 104 minutes, following Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould), and his parents, Jerry and Jeanette (Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan respectively), who have recently relocated to Montana. Joe goes to school, Jeanette makes dinner, and Jerry works at a nearby golf club. When Jerry gets fired from his job, the strains of financial insecurity start to widen the marital fractures between Jerry and Jeanette, catalysing their slow, inevitable separation. When Jerry leaves to fight wildfires in the mountains, any remaining cohesion snaps.
The film oscillates between Joe, Jerry and Jeannette, focusing on Joe’s point of view as he observes the disintegration of his parents’ relationship. As viewers, we are denied any exposition or contextualisation, which maintains a level of mundane ambiguity, and keeps us from fully grasping the gravity of any situation, stifling any engagement. The intense focus on these three characters pushes minor characters into redundancy, and the rest of the town into a nothingness that asphyxiates Joe, Jerry and Jeanette with an intense sense of alienation.
At one point, Jeanette says: “I feel like I need to wake up. But I don’t know what from, and to.” The film reeks of hot-air despair. The quiet and urgent desperation of suburbia is not a particularly new idea - Revolutionary Road and American Beauty are early exponents that come to mind. Here, the idea is handled flatly without any explosive revelation or breakdown, forming a drawling feeling of utter despondency, prodded occasionally by spikes of financial difficulty; the loneliness of a small town; a loveless marriage; the dangers of a wildfire; an affair. The film simmers but doesn’t come to a boil—the characters never realise the full hopelessness of their situation, nor can they articulate it. A deep sense of loneliness permeates each picture: the camera isolates each person, so that characters almost never occupy the same frame.
The stylistic simplicity of the film tightens a similar noose around the actors. Dano’s stifling directorial hand sacrifices the potential of any great feeling, in order to achieve stylistic and tonal consistency. As a result, the acting becomes simplified and uninspired—the male leads repeat their lines with such minute nuance that is itself undetectable. Oxenbound’s face is consistently painted with a quiet gaping boyish shock; Gyllenhaal’s face is steel-cut into a heavy stony sullenness. Only Mulligan is given some free reign. Her face is a bit more elastic than the others, a finite mine of expression which she uses sparingly, in certain drunken reveries, or fights, or moments of self-awareness. But for the most part, the emotions that each character experiences are hidden from view, denying the audience their right to empathy and reflecting little intrinsic or personality-driven complexity, relying on context over character.
Joe’s casual job as a photographer’s assistant taking formal portraits, forces a heavy-handed analogy to the stocky sincerity of his own family. The film is intercut with the act of photographing family portraits: ensembles of stiff, serious, uncomfortable figures, staring emptily towards the camera lens, suspended in a sort of ceremonial stillness. It’s a personality trait that is recognisable in the Brinsons. The layer of formality, and the absence of personality anonymises the characters, which though captured with a laser focus, represent the plight of other families elsewhere in Montana, in America, in the world. The etiquette here artificially evokes a constant seriousness which covers the film with an oppressive fog: there is no relief of comedy, no breath of real life or fresh air, just the heavy suffocation of a stodgy script, and the danger of a wildfire nearby.