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by Jay Seaver

"Another family falls apart with some nice details."
3 stars

"Wildlife" is a sort of anti-blockbuster, almost to a fault, the sort of thing that is real and honest but in a way that can seem just as generic as the fantasies on the other end of the spectrum. Just looking at it, one sees that director Paul Dano cast a pretty Paul Dano-looking kid to play the main part, while Carey Mulligan often seemed to be playing Julianne Moore playing her character. It's a very familiar indie rite of passage, this sort of collapsing marriage period piece.

The collapsing marriage is that of Jerry Brinson (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his wife Jeanette (Moore); they have recently moved to Montana from Idaho, and that wasn't their only stop over the last few years, making 14-year-old son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) the new kid in school again. Jerry doesn't last long in his new job - he's headstrong in the wrong ways even when he's not drinking - and his pride has him pass up others in order to join a crew fighting a wildfire sixty miles away. Jeannette has already taken a part-time job teaching swimming at the YMCA, where she catches the eye of local businessman Warren Miller (Bill Camp), which could at the very least lead to a better job at his auto dealership.

It's an oft-told story in the general sense, and even the idea of telling it from the point of view of the kid who is right on the cusp of understanding what's going on has some miles on it. In this case, that perspective doesn't hold the filmmakers back in either a positive or negative sense, but it also doesn't contribute much - there's no aspect of the story that ever feels hidden, kept out of Joe's view, and relatively little sense of his life and how it's disrupted. That's no knock on Ed Oxenbould, the young actor with a certain resemblance to the director, who plays the part's sweet, admiring ignorance well and makes the frustrated, confused outbursts seem genuine; he's fine. If anything, he should have more to do; too often, Dano just cuts to him in the middle of a scene where what's going on with the adults is quite clear seemingly just to remind the audience that he's there and doesn't entirely know what's going on.

That's not exactly a bad choice, but it means that a lot of time is being spent on the least active character and the second-most interesting angle. One wonders a bit how the film would play with Jeanette more overtly at the center, rather than filtering it through Joe's perspective. There's an interesting sort of misdirection going on with her at first, as it looks like the mother will blossom given a chance, but there is instead, an intriguing sense of her spinning out of control without a center to hold on to. It certainly gives Carey Mulligan a bunch of unexpected riffs on familiar material, which she does nice work with, finding different ways to communicate different sorts of desperation. She gives the sense of a woman trying to reach back for what she was like before she was married and not always coming up with the best or more appropriate bits.

(The question of how inappropriate is something the filmmakers sometimes seem to notice without being sure how much they want to deal with it; there is something kind of weird about the mother-son relationship that gets stranger with the father's absence, but they sort of quietly turn back and hope the audience doesn't notice they've gone one more step than intended down that path.)

There's still something kind of familiar and too deliberate about the whole thing, though. You've seen characters like Jake Gyllenhaal's father who tries to restore his pride with alcohol and danger, Bill Camp's rich and predatory man, or Zoe Margaret Colletti's girl who takes a quick shine to Joe before; they're well-played but standard. Too often, this is a movie of images rather than events - the audience is shown the apocalyptic-seeming force of destruction at the periphery but when it's time to return to fire imagery, the result is disappointing, and the many long, static shots feel like Dano trying to make sure the audience gets his points. Skipping the critical moments of confrontation and decision-making in favor of an epilogue may be consistent with showing how Joe experiences things, but it makes for a too-brief rumination on who gets exiled and who gets to reestablish themselves.

There's layers to "Wildlife", enough for it to be well worth picking apart and examining afterward, and if there's a problem, it's that the filmmakers are a little too conscious of those layers and pleased to show them off. It too-often feels like dressing up something that's plain underneath, as it turns out that, contrary to conventional wisdom, not all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=31901&reviewer=371
originally posted: 10/23/18 10:44:27
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  19-Oct-2018 (PG-13)

  09-Nov-2018 (12A)

  19-Oct-2018 (M)

Directed by
  Paul Dano

Written by
  Paul Dano
  Zoe Kazan

  Carey Mulligan
  Ed Oxenbould
  Bill Camp
  Jake Gyllenhaal

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