Crumbling Marriage and Harsh Coming of age are the Focus of Paul Dano’s Directorial Debut.


Paul Dano, despite the massively long list of critically acclaimed films he has appeared in as an actor, may still be a name that many casual movie watchers do not readily recognize.  However, at the young age of 34. he has a very impressive resume to draw on.  Films include Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood, Looper, Prisoners, 12 Years a Slave, Love & Mercy, Swiss Army Man, and many more. After all of this time, and after learning from so many directors, Paul has taken the risk to step behind the camera for his directorial debut with the film Wildlife.

Based on the book by Richard Ford, Wildlife‘s screenplay was written by Dano and his long-time girlfriend Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick).  He has shared how their personal relationship has yielded surprisingly good results professionally, as he was unwilling to fully pursue a project that he didn’t feel was good enough.  Passionate about Richard Ford’s book, and with the author’s blessing, he was able to free himself from the source material so that he could create its own cinematic ending in a way that carried Dano’s voice throughout the story.

Wildlife features a fantastic cast including Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler, Stronger), Carey Mulligan (Suffragette, Inside Llewyn Davis), Ed Oxenbould (The Visit, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day), and Bill Camp (Red Sparrow, Hostiles).  Each ground this story firmly in in the early 1960’s Montana setting through their subtle, yet powerful performances, but it is Ed Oxenbould who is tasked with carrying the picture, as the story is seen through his eyes.

Jerry Brinson (Gyllenhaal) is a man who deeply loves his wife Jeanette (Mulligan), and his son Joe (Oxenbould).  He is a natural born salesman, and knows how to connect with people.  He also tends to lose jobs fairly often, which precipitates the family never being able to sink down any roots nor achieve much stability.  Currently renting a home in a small Montana town, Jerry has recently lost his job as a golf instructor/caddie after the owner found out he was making side bets with the wealthy members.  Although the members go to bat for him, he chooses not to return, but has no luck landing anything else, either.

As the job situation becomes more and more dire, little cracks begin to become visible in their marriage.  Jeannette is extremely supportive, but as she lets Jerry hold on to his pride, she begins to advocate more and more to go out and work herself, as she is college educated, and more capable to get a steady position.  Eventually this happens, mostly out of necessity, but also because Jerry chooses to take a job for menial pay, away from the family, fighting the raging forest fires, many miles outside of town.  This creates the conditions that create the central conflict of the story for their son Joe, who is working as a photographer’s assistant, but who has a front row seat to watch his parents’ marriage crumble.

While the vantage point is through the eyes of Joe, the drive of the story is how Jeanette responds to the uncertain future she has with Jerry, and how she still longs to have a present romantic figure in her life, even if it means responding to the advances of her much older boss, Warren Miller (Camp).  Joe is left to care for himself as his father is far away and his mother becomes an absentee parent as she tries to live like a young, single.  All of this tension is felt by Joe, and by extension the audience, which crescendos into a difficult, but grounded coming-of-age story for Joe set against the metaphorical and real wildfires that have been raging around this town, and this family.

The time frame of the 1960’s allows for Dano to also push into territory where he can explore the issues of gender as it relates to expected norms of the times (and dare I say now) within the family, the workplace, and in terms of what is acceptable sexual behavior as one seeks it out against the backdrop of a struggling marriage, or being a parent.  The not-so-subtle way Jeanette begins relating to Joe following Jerry’s leaving town from mother to peer, is a jarring transition that causes us to empathize greatly with Joe, especially as he snaps picture after picture at work of families who want that picture as a monument to what is most important, even as his is slipping away.

Paul Dano’s first effort behind the lens is a strong debut that brings out the best in Mulligan and Oxenbould, while utilizing the strengths of Gyllenhaal, despite him not being in the film for much of the running time.  It is obvious that he has learned much in his experiences as an actor, constantly working with some of the best in the business.  I am hopeful that he won’t stop acting, but that he will also look to expand on his directorial passions as well.

Wildlife opens at Landmark Theaters in many markets this weekend.