Paul Dano’s first film is an adaptation of Richard Ford’s 1990 novel Wildlife, and it’s a remarkably accomplished debut, maintaining the peculiar cadences of Ford’s prose style while working entirely on its own terms as well. In essence, it’s a family drama, revolving around Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal), Jeanette Brinson (Carey Mulligan) and their son Joe (Ed Oxenbould), all of whom have recently moved to Great Falls, Montana, at the close of the 1950s, which is when the film commences. At first, Jerry seems capable of supporting his family, but after he is fired from a job at a local golf course, refuses to take the job back when he is offered it again, and also refuses to take any “menial” retail positions, the Brinsons are placed under considerable economic and emotional strain. Eventually, Jerry decides to make a wage by going off to fight a massive wildfire raging in the area, assuring his family that he’s doing it for their own good, and for the good of the town, despite the fact that the wildfire doesn’t seem to be encroaching on Great Falls in any real way, and despite the fact that the pay is considerably lower than he would receive from a retail job.
The main part of the film therefore takes place in Jerry’s absence, as Jeanette and Joe try to adapt to life without him to depend on as an economic and emotional support. On the face of it, that sound like the kind of meditation on mid-century masculinity that has become so modish in recent years – meditations that often present a certain solemnity towards the fifties as coterminous with the longevity and futurity of a classical cinematic impulse itself. Yet Wildlife never quite fits that mould, and indeed never quite feels part of the present orientation towards the fifties, playing as a distant memory as much as a distant series of events – a version of mid-century America remembered ten or even twenty years ago. It’s no coincidence, either, that the film is set in 1960, since the fifties seem too foreclosed here to ever really immerse us in them as a present tense, albeit too recent in the characters’ lives to be available as an object of nostalgia either. The result is a remarkably poised vision of the toll of mid-century masculinity upon both men and women, as Ford and Dano evoke a series of gendered and social norms that make Jerry and Jeanette’s struggles inextricable from one another, even or especially as those struggles work to gradually drive them apart.
It’s not just Ford’s narrative and prose style, however, but Dano’s direction that gives Wildlife such a powerful and original atmosphere. While almost every shot might be suffused with mid-century pastoral, and an exquisite taste for mise-en-scene, Dano splits the difference between painterly and photographic compositions, ensuring that while his images are frequently still, they never feel static, or congeal into the kind of stately solemnity of so many contemporary films about this era. In part, that’s also a result of the evocative way in which Dano shifts from one image to the next, and the way in which this corresponds to Joe’s main experience of his parents, which consists largely in him “capturing” their relationship as a series of still images, in which even the most dramatic or traumatic bursts of dialogue are quickly subsumed back into a deeper and more brooding sombience. It’s almost inevitable, then, that Joe should find work at a photographic studio, since his experience of the world tends to be intensely visual, but to drown out sound and movement, especially when it comes to his parents, who seem to be occupying his memories of them before he ever gets a chance to properly experience them in the present.
In other words, Joe’s relationship with his parents is perpetually displaced, and continually mediated through a series of social expectations that are bigger than any one of them, and incapable of being fully articulated by any one of them. Time and again, the events of the film demand the distance of a hindsight that the characters don’t have, and which already feels too distant by the time we experience them in our own present, with the result that Wildlife often plays as a tone poem, or a mood piece – too stranded between the past and present to ever quite cohere into a regular narrative. While Wildlife may feel autobiographical, then, it never quite feels specific enough to be Ford’s life story, let alone Dano’s life story, instead conjuring up the limits to autobiographical reminiscence placed upon those who grew up under the shadow and expectations of this mid-century mode of masculinity, and its overwhelming burden to subsume all signification into its paternal role.
That approach allows Dano to capture the cosmic sparseness of the fifties better than any recent film I’ve seen, with most of the film simply lingering on long, vast, vacant stretches of time and space that are only enhanced when Jerry leaves Great Falls to fight the wildfire. In Ford’s vision, and Dano’s vision, the fifties are what happened in these looming spaces that mid-century masculinity was supposed to oversee and command – spaces whose blankness and strangeness makes Wildfire more surreal and unsettling as it proceeds, and as Jerry proves himself incapable of properly absorbing them into a more realistic tone and register. As a result, the shots and compositions of the film are more than a mere matter of slow cinema – they’re an attempt to envisage this staunch masculine ethos as a spatial principle, just as Jerry’s decision to fight the fire isn’t exactly a rejection of his role as father, but an affirmation of the sheer amount of space that he is supposed to commandeer, if only by removing himself to the farthest and most inconceivably coordinate of that space. The fact that the fire is entirely notional to begin with – it never once approaches the town – just makes the town itself feel more distended and cosmic once Jerry insists that it is sufficiently contiguous with the fire to justify him leaving it to fight that fire in the first place, as his paternal role is entirely abstracted and absorbed into the spatial scheme of the film itself.
In a kind of end game of mid-century masculinity, then, the only way Jerry can provide for his family is by reiterating the magnitude of the space that he is supposed to commandeer- the space that he is supposed to provide with a realistic tone as much as economic provisions and support. No surprise, then, that when Jeanette and Joe actually drive to the front line of the fire one afternoon, they can’t find Jerry anywhere, since the closer they come to the fire, the more remote both he and the fire seem, as evinced in a beautiful extended pan in which the camera moves up an embankment towards the first flames that we see in the film, only for the angle of the embankment and the movement of the camera to make the fire recede into the remote background at the very moment at which we are supposed to be approaching it. In that sense, the fire plays like a limit more than an actual space – an insistence that Jerry’s paternal role can only consist in continually receding and removing the parameters of the film’s spatial scheme, exponentially expanding the space he is supposed to oversee to avoid having to acknowledge his failure to properly oversee it.
That failure to establish his family – and the nuclear family generally – as a stable referent means that the extended second act of Wildlife takes on quite a different tone, mostly centring on the curious, playful and provisional rapport between Jeanette and Joe in Jerry’s sustained absence. At first, the picaresque prospect of getting to know each other without a father-figure as mediator turns the film in a comic direction, especially because Jeanette also launches herself into a tipsy, cruisey, peripatetic restlessness that cuts against the solemnity of the opening act, and culminates with her quasi-romantic interest in an older and more established local man, Warren Miller, played by Bill Camp. Yet the absence of Jerry as reality-principle also means the film can never quite settle into comic realism either, as Jeanette oscillates between Warren and Joe to fill the void left by Jerry, sometimes speaking to Joe as if he is now the man of the house, and sometimes speaking through him about her frustrations at no longer having a proper man of the house to rely on. Triangulated between her husband, her lover and her son, Jeanette finally approaches an inexorable horizon at which she can’t define herself against mid-century masculinity in a stable way, but can’t escape being defined by it either, prompting an inchoate series of scenes that form one of Mulligan’s most beautiful performances to date, as Jeanette finally confesses to Joe that “I feel like I need to wake up, but I just don’t know what from – or to.”
In the process, the inexorable limitations to Jerry’s fatherhood also come into focus, although it takes Miller to really expose them, since at first he’s held up as everything that Jerry is not – wealthy, cultured, assured and, above all, a self-made man. Yet in his most intimate conversation with Joe, Miller confesses that his own supreme moment of paternal omniscience – flying an airplane he had bought for the first time – culminated with him turning off the engine several thousand feet in the air to fly with geese, despite the fact that it could have resulted in him crashing and sacrificing everything and everyone he had built on the ground below. At the very moment at which he had reached his apotheosis as a father, Jerry tells Joe, “I had lost all my humanity,” a revelation that seems to extend to Jerry as well, who returns to town once snow renders the firefighting unnecessary, and responds to his discovery of Jeanette’s affair by setting Miller’s house alight. In a profoundly and beautifully surreal sequence, Jerry takes the spatial principle of the film – the fire front – and turns it against himself, taking the spatial threshold that he has continually receded from view and condensing it to an act of criminal and paternal self-destruction, with the result that his return coincides with the very fire that his absence was supposed to prevent.
Yet, in a beautiful final twist, the film accepts this inexorable limit to mid-century ideals of fatherhood and masculinity, rather than mourning them, or mourning those who were unable to live up to them, let alone those in the present who are disinterested in living up to them. In a change of heart, Miller decides not to press charges, and the Brinsons find a new kind of life as a family. While Jerry may settle for a retail job, and Jeanette may leave him to become a teacher in Oregon, they maintain their connection to Joe, and regularly meet in Great Falls, and the film ends with a brief vignette of one of these meetings, which Joe commemorates in a photograph. And that provisional ending makes Wildlife feels more attuned, in its modest way, to the power that mid-century family values still hold over the present, since neither Ford nor Dano ever seem to flatter themselves that they are sufficiently extricable from those values to affirm or negate them outright, instead finding a quiet grace in the way these characters find a way to live amongst spaces that demand to be filled, but can never be properly filled – the spaces that constitute this accomplished debut.