'Wildlife' Review: Paul Dano Directs Jake Gyllenhaal And Carey Mulligan In A Tender Emotional Portrait [TIFF]

Early on in Paul Dano's Wildlife, the movie's 14-year-old protagonist, Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould), takes an after-school job at a photo lab. It's a plot point that also serves as a mission statement for the film, which tells the story of a family's dissolution in early-1960s Montana. A spare, deeply empathetic piece of work, Wildlife also works as a sort of photo essay on the lives of its characters, presenting evolving snapshots of its central family's members as they experience varying stages of exasperation, damaged pride, desperation and disappointment.

When we first meet the Brinson family, they've just moved to a town in rural Montana. Joe is settling well into his school. Dad Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) has a job as a golf pro. Mom Jeannette (Carey Mulligan) stays at home, but seems to miss the purpose she once felt at work. Jerry also is frustrated with the drudgery of his life, forced to clean the golf cleats of the men whose lives he aspires to have, but can't attain.

After that frustration causes Jerry to lose his job, marital issues that simmered below the surface in the Brinson house erupt to the surface as the family order is turned on its head. Jeannette goes to work teaching swimming at the Y. Jerry leaves to fight wildfires in the nearby forests. Jeannette embarks on an affair with one of her swimming students, Warren (Bill Camp), a local businessman. All the while, Joe looks on, seeing the parents he thought he knew become selfish, impulsive people that he barely recognizes, and increasingly must work to survive, rather than depend upon.

It's a story that could be melodramatic, spiteful or shot through with bitterness, like plenty of other domestic dramas about the failure of dreams. But Wildlife sympathizes with each of its characters, and that sympathy particularly shines through in its photography. Cinematographer Diego García's camera captures incredible shots that combine the small-town idyll of Norman Rockwell with the enigmatic melancholy of Edward Hopper.

Hopper and Rockwell's work invited a post-modern mix of nostalgia and a sense that the viewer was only seeing a portion of the real story. Similarly, questions of what lies beyond a staged exterior show up throughout the Wildlife. Portraits from Joe's photo studio job — happy families, siblings, groups of soldiers — appear in several of the film's scenes and montages, always inviting deeper questions about their subjects. The Brinson's front door features a single, narrow window, suggesting that what others can see from peering inside is only a tiny fraction of what's really going on.

That ethos extends to the movie's fantastic performances. Mulligan's distant looks and Gyllenhaal's tense body language communicate a novel's worth of mostly-unspoken regret, resignation and broken trust between two people, captured in close-ups that make you wonder what's going through their minds, while always communicating how they feel. Oxenbould's emotive face shows a responsible kid who's had adulthood thrust on him early, but has only begun to grasp what the adults around him are really capable of. You feel for him, wonder what will await him in adulthood, but somehow feel assured that his sensitivity will make him a better person than either of his parents.

Images are one metaphor in Wildlife. The other is fire — its destructive nature, uncontrollability and both the death and regrowth it leaves in its wake. The wildfire Jerry leaves to fight along the Canadian border gives him purpose, but is also the catalyst for Jeannette's giving up on their marriage. That same raging fire also represents the crumbling nature of Jerry and Jeannette's marriage, and its ultimate lack of salvageability. As Jerry tells Joe over the phone of his work, "We don't have control. We just watch it burn." The world Jerry returns to once the fire is put out is a different one than what he left behind, and the pain is raw. But the break also provides a chance to start again.

All of these elements factor into the ultimate strength of Wildlife: its humanity. The actions of its grown-up characters are frequently irresponsible, and sometimes indefensible. But through lingering, detailed shots and performances that communicate an iceberg's worth of hidden depths, Dano's film shows each of its characters' experiences as emotionally valid. It would be easy for Wildlife paint Jerry, Jeannette, or Joe as frustrated rage monsters, wide-eyed victims or vain, faded beauties. But the film dares to do more, seeing the people who make up its story as people, with personal struggles that have created the flaws they work to overcome. It's a film of generous, meditative observation that also happens to be beautifully observed.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10