3 ½ (out of 4)
Paul Dano offers 2018 its supreme actor-turned-director display – the eccentric performer's cinematic savvy exceeds ambitious A-listers like Bradley Cooper, Jonah Hill, or John Krasinski in front of or behind the camera. While no gobsmacking masterpiece, Wildlife is a dexterous, contemplative period drama ripe with accomplished filmmaking facets across the spectrum. The decor, lighting and editing, not to mention the stellar stagecraft, are all superlative – this doesn’t feel like Dano’s first rodeo.
Written by both Dano and his longtime romantic partner Zoe Kazan, Wildlife is adapted from the 1990 novel of the same name by Richard Ford. Refining the material to his liking, Dano has no trouble composing a solemn meditation on the disintegration of nuclear-era domesticity. The applicability of the 1960-set film lies largely in the erosion of the era's idealism and the atrophy of martial love. Universally, Wildlife looks straight into the blemished and resentful face of divorce and precisely paints all the unspoken pain it yields.
It's unfair to Dano but Wildlife is an actor's film if ever there was one. Carey Mulligan, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ed Oxenbould are each extraordinary individually and terrific together. The experienced parental performers exhibit themselves to the foremost of their abilities and the authenticity of the sprouting protagonist in all his frustrated powerlessness is too close for comfort. Gyllenhaal – still as superb as we've come to expect – might have outshone Mulligan's motherly role if he wasn't so absent from the story. As a lonely wife losing grasp of her fidelity and maternal instincts, Mulligan adds to a repertoire already stocked with impressive achievements with a career-best performance.
This subdued stroke of genius is no contender for much awards consideration. Yet even narrowly examined as an acting showcase, Wildlife is more unnecessary evidence that Paul Dano is a Hollywood outsider capable of classic-tier creative contributions. And yes, Mulligan and Gyllenhaal will have their Oscar speeches planned for some career-encapsulating project down the road, but it's Ed Oxenbould bearing the soul of the film. While he's a discouragingly passive protagonist, his acting reflects the reserved, modest dissatisfaction that Dano himself has come to exhibit so well himself.
Bolstered by indispensable themes and masterly performances, Dano's manner in arranging these elements is so good that Wildlife is a delicacy even at its most dispiriting.
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