Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, even if it leaves little to no impact. For Paul Dano’s directorial debut “Wildlife” the blaze sparks for a moment and flickers into a run-of-the-mill bonfire with your family.
Adapted from Richard Ford’s novel, “Wildlife” focuses on the Brinson family taking place in Great Falls, Montana in 1960. Smoke from wildfires spread across nearby mountain ranges, requiring more firefighters than available. Unemployed men enlist to fight the fire for $1 per hour.
Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal) recently lost his job at a local country club, now questioning his sense of purpose. Jeanette Brinson (Carey Mulligan) stays at home raising their son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) until the circumstances bring her to teaching swim lessons for family income. Even Joe takes up a job assisting a local photographer after school to help out.
After refusing to take his job back at the country club, Jerry joins the local fire department and heads for the mountains until winter arrives and extinguishes the remains. Although he leaves home to stop a fire, another smolders inside his marriage. Jeanette resents his choice quickly falling into false suspicion of Jerry.
Jerry’s absence unfolds the story as the audience takes Joe’s point of view watching his lonely mother eventually find herself in bed with a much older, financially secure man, Warren Miller (Bill Camp). Sadly, much like the infidelity between Mr. Miller and Jeanette, the climax of the film doesn’t quite hit the spot.
“Wildlife” categorizes itself in a typical coming-of-age fashion. This type of film needs to follow a strict recipe or it’ll turn out like your mother-in-law’s cookies, dull and flat. With that said, Dano delivers a bland flavor for his first attempt in the director’s chair.
Look, he is an incredible actor. His performances will forever have a place in the history of cinema. His portrayal of a young Brian Wilson in “Love and Mercy” hauntingly recalls the creation of “Pet Sounds,” perhaps one of the most important records of the 1960’s. But if he is going to portray life during that decade, it’s important to note the fire rises in his acting and shimmer in his directing.
To his credit, he attempts something unlike most films in this genre. Dano intentionally withholds the main ingredient for nostalgia, voiceovers. However, the experiment fell short.
“Let’s see if we can do it without voiceover,” he said in an interview with NPR. “Let’s try to make this present tense.”
Ambitious, but a mistake.
What would films like“A River Runs Through It,” “Stand By Me,” “The Sandlot,” etc. be like without the protagonist reflecting timeless thoughts and lessons between those quiet moments in time? Imagine “The Wonder Years” without Daniel Stern (Home Alone) narrating Kevin Arnolds curiosity. Awkward.
“Wildlife” feels like there’s heat in the kitchen, but nothing cooking.