Family on fire

Rating: 4


by Jason Solomons

Actor Paul Dano has a distinctive, moonish young face you may know from films such as Little miss Sunshine, the recent Tv adaptation of War & Peace, or being done in by Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will be blood. He has turned director for the first time now, with Wildlife, an assured adaptation of a Richard Ford novel (I love Richard Ford, one of those macho American novelists I imagine sleeps in a denim shirt and has a baseball mitt on the porch).

Dano expertly gets the tone, the colour, the texture, the dialogue, the performances of Wildlife just right, so you’re transported to mid-century montana, where the wide skies and tidy houses merely allow the American Dream to fade away like wisps of acrid smoke.

Set in 1960, as a Tv newscaster tells us at the start, we are with a contented- looking family: Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jerry has got a new job as greenskeeper at a posh golf club; Carey mulligan’s Jean (Jeanette, if you’re polite) is at home making meatloaf in her perfect little kitchen; while young Joe seems happy enough at his new school, even if homework’s a bit of a struggle.

Then Jerry loses his job – too friendly with the members, too keen to take bets off them up the 18th – and he spirals into a crisis of masculinity and beer. He leaves his family to fight the raging wildfires the news keeps warning about.

Suddenly, Jean finds herself bereft and, apart from Joe, alone and needing a job, as well as a future. Finding work as a swimming teacher, she dons the prettiest little bathing hat, flirts with a rich car salesman who limps (bill Camp) and gets an invite for her (and Joe) over for dinner. A dinner to which Jean wears her ‘desperation dress’.

We actually register most of the film through the close-ups on Joe’s little face – played by 17-year-old Australian actor Ed Oxenbould, he’s happy when mom and Dad cuddle and is desolately concerned when they argue, and now he clearly doesn’t know what to make of mom’s newfound penchant for smoking, drinking and flirting. ‘When’s Dad coming back?’ he’ll ask. With that open book of a visage, it’s the sort of role Dano himself would have been given starting out, in films you’ve forgotten you ever saw, like L.I.E and The newcomers.

Eager to help his mom, Joe gets a  weekend job in a photographic studio, learning to take portraits of happy American families, smiling while the forests burn in the distance or distant wars cause sons to enlist. As if to mirror Joe’s job, Dano and his cameraman Diego Garcia shoot in steady tableaux, nothing fancy but perfectly composed, unforgivingly ironic in their detachment and stillness.

but this is mulligan’s movie, her best, most mature work, with all the skittishness she’s exhibited previously in, say, An Education, but also taking advantage of her vulnerability and sad eyes, as well as her loveliness. It’s the first time for ages I’ve thought Carey’s found a perfect part, and a perfect part has found Carey. She just fits the clutch purse and the housewife pinny as well as, later, the halter necks and the afternoon cocktails.

Wildlife is a fine piece in a minor key, replete with subtle emotions and barely-contained rage, buoyed by music from Dinah Washington and Connie Francis, fragile female voices floating defiantly on the winds of change.