Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Tuesday, November 20, 2018

“Wildlife” is all smoke but no fire

“Wildlife” is a film that oozes potential. The cast, for one, is enough to get anyone excited: Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal staring side by side. It’s the directorial debut of Paul Dano, an actor whose portfolio includes some of the greatest pieces of cinema from the last couple of years (“There Will Be Blood,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” and “12 Years a Slave” to name a few). It has a premise that lends itself so well to the screen: a father leaves his family to fend for themselves as he goes to fight a wildfire in the backwoods of Montana in the 1950s.

Put simply, the stakes were incredibly high for Dano’s directorial debut. I am sorry to have to report that “Wildlife” is all smoke and no fire. It commits perhaps one of the greatest sins of moviegoing: it’s boring, and amazingly so. It’s a disappointment to the stars whose performances are unrealized and to fans of Dano who would’ve expected better from such a seasoned actor with immense exposure to other directors.

Adapted from the 1990 Richard Ford novel of the same name, “Wildlife” centers on a struggling lower middle class family new to Montana, encapsulated in the uproarious cultural upending of the 1950s. Gyllenhaal plays Jerry Brinson, an affable, prideful caricature of that stereotypical strong male figure common to the era. His wife Jean (Carey Mulligan) lives a life of domesticity. And what portrait of the nuclear family would be complete without little Joe (Ed Oxenbould)?

When Jerry’s work prospects dissipate, he joins a group of men who are devoted to putting out fires up north, leaving his family behind—and that’s all we see of Gyllenhaal. One of the more puzzling decisions of the movie was to cast Gyllenhaal but then barely use him.

So we’re left with Joe and Jean on their own, struggling to make ends meet. Mulligan explores her new found freedom from her husband with a kind of shallow commentary that you’ve probably read before in something like Revolutionary Road. Watching Mulligan blow up the nuclear family is as much fun as actually sitting in Chernobyl. She brings a dryness to her performance that annoys and crafts apathy. It’s one saving grace is Oxenbould’s performance that does lend itself to some wonderful nuance.

One has to wonder: did Dano, who also co-wrote the film with partner Zoe Kazan, copy and paste the dialogue from the book? It simply doesn’t flow and most definitely comes across as a dry literary adaptation.

The camera does nothing, forcing us to watch in agony as the banality of the situation hashes itself out in front of us. No effort whatsoever is made to have the camera serve as any sort of effective storytelling device─all it does is stand still as the movie unfolds incredibly slowly, with so little emotional buy-in. There does exist a school of thought that the camera can do nothing and in its lack of action is effectively telling the story. If that is the case here, then most viewers will perhaps require a master's degree in cinema studies to find the significance─there’s no meaning that I can discern.

“Wildlife” could have been so good. All the ingredients were there to make something wonderful. Instead, the final product was left in the oven too long and went up in smoke.

Grade: D

“Wildlife” opens in theaters Friday, October 26

Jrobbins@theeagleonline.com


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