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Paul Dano’s directorial debut, starring Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal, explores the dissolution of a marriage.


Carey Mulligan (left) and Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Wildlife’ // Courtesy of IFC Films

I have come to appreciate a particular brand of literary-to-film adaptation, which I didn’t realize until I reached the end of Paul Dano’s new film Wildlife, based on Richard Ford’s 1990 novel of the same name. It was the first screening I attended at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival; a spot that, in recent years, has gone to other signature titles like Luca Guadagnino’s luscious translation of André Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name (from 2017) or writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s original drama Manchester By The Sea(from 2016),  which fully engaged the power of descriptive language.

The spoken word matters and we remember the dramatic arc of key performances in these films, but the thing that stays with me — the haunting refrains in each instance — comes more from how the filmmakers composed moving frames that could be read like novels.

At first glance, this would seem even more impressive in the case of Dano, a first-time cowriter (with Zoe Kazan) and director who is better known as an actor — he went toe-to-toe with Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood and played the younger version of Brian Wilson in Love & Mercy — until you consider the fact that Dano has worked under the tutelage of filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood), Spike Jonze (Where the Wild Things Are), Kelly Reichardt (Meek’s Cutoff), and Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave). It is obvious that Dano was doing more than merely taking direction; he was also absorbing how each filmmaker navigated the craft of storytelling.

No matter how broad the scale of the production, a meaningful degree of intimacy must exist, not only between the characters onscreen, but with audiences as they seek ways to be immersed in the scenes.

In Wildlife, the stripped-down narrative shows a young boy, Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould), quietly observe the gradual dissolution of his parent’s marriage. His father, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), is an uncompromising and principled man of meager means, but his young son can still easily look up to and imagine emulating him. His mother, Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), is more practical and driven. Set in 1960s’ Montana, she’s handcuffed by social conventions that define the role of women both in families and as potential breadwinners. When Jerry loses his job and sees no other option than to sign up to fight wild fires, the dangerous undertaking separates him from his family for weeks at a time. Jeanette stays home and cuts as many corners as possible until she feels she has no other choice but to embark on an affair with her boss (Bill Camp), an opportunistic and paternalistic figure.

It is fair to say that audiences will know early on where this story is headed, but Dano’s expert execution makes the journey a diverting (and at times disturbing) experience. The performances, starting with Mulligan’s Jeanette, capture the escalating desperation of people caught up in social and cultural boxes that are on the verge of squeezing the life out of them. Everyone is fighting and at odds with not only each other, but also with themselves and the choices they have made.

On a deeper level, Wildlife reminds me of Revolutionary Road, the 2008 Sam Mendes film based on a Richard Yates novel which featured Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet and Michael Shannon. Shannon earned an Academy Award nomination for Supporting Actor for his work, and the film also got nods for Art Direction and Costume Design. I find the latter distinctions more telling because they speak to how visual composition is analogous to what a gifted writer can do with words. Authors generate sensory details that place us in a time and location that might otherwise be completely unfamiliar to us, but they make it well known.

Filmmakers who convert narratives from the page to the screen operate in similar modes. That notion is apparent in Wildlife as Dano provides viewers with textural cues that are capable of augmenting the work of his cast. We are treated to moments of watching Jerry fight wild fires of unbridled majesty and destructive impact; this contrasts with the empty spaces of the Brinson household, which lets us know this place is no home for Jerry, Jeanette or Joe. Dano shows rather than tells us these things — as only a master storyteller can. (Opens Friday) (PG-13) Grade: A