Directing debuts from established actors are often cause for skepticism or outright disappointment. (Not everyone can be Charles Laughton.) And so it is with Paul Dano’s Wildlife, an early Sundance favorite, the Critics’ Week opener at Cannes, and now a selection of the New York Film Festival’s Main Slate. Adapted from the novel by American author Richard Ford, Dano’s film follows 14-year-old Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould) as he grows up in the badlands of Montana in the year 1960. Effectively abandoned by his fractious, increasingly distant parents, Joe is forced to chart his own course in “a lonely place,” with a raging forest fire encroaching from the west and the threat of the atomic war looming overhead. The material crackles with possibility — literally, at one point, when the boy is faced with the forest fire that his father (Jake Gyllenhaal) left home to fight after getting canned from the local country club.
What Dano has created, however, is a fine, forgettable movie — the kind that’s difficult to describe as anything more than “well-made.” His choices as a director are, individually, unimpeachable: painstaking period detail; meaningful, slow push-ins and steady pans; and sharply composed sunsets and rolling landscape shots. But apart from a lively turn from Carey Mulligan, there’s not much to distract from the film’s staid, baseline competence. There’s almost zero sense of directorial vision, no spark of illumination that might suggest why someone would be drawn to Ford’s source material. “You could be anyone with that name” Joe’s mother tells him at one point, a statement indicative of as-yet-unfulfilled promise. But you-can-be-anything potential can quickly shade into anonymity — and in the final summation, Wildlife fulfills that very progression.
Published as part of New York Film Festival 2018 | Dispatch 1.