It has been a big year for the movies, and the record-breaking domestic gate receipts, which have hit $12 billion, reflect the bigness of the movies themselves. Consider 2018’s top five box-office winners: Black Panther; Avengers: Infinity War; The Incredibles 2; Jurassic World; and Deadpool 2. More than ever, Hollywood is about big movies—big time.
So let me make a pitch for small movies, and their stewardship of what might be called literary values. Inwardness. Language. The intricacies of relationships. Character, in other words, and its cinematic delivery system, acting. And also place. Where the blockbuster, Marvel-comics-inspired movie conjures an opulent fantasy world via the magic of computerized imagery, the small literary movie trains its eye on the world as it is, portraying this or that specific locale as a force that shapes, colors, and limits the kind of lives lived there.
Isolation and beauty define the Montana captured in Wildlife, Paul Dano’s sensitive adaptation of the 1990 Richard Ford novel. Set in the early 1960s in Great Falls, Montana, the film (actually shot in Livingston, Montana) opens and closes with the town seen from above, showing mountains behind and a train passing through its center—on tracks that run along Main Street, as if to remind residents that life is indeed elsewhere. It is a summer of raging wildfires, and when Jerry Brinson, a handsome but feckless family man, loses his job as an instructor at the local golf club, he falls into a self-pitying funk, then impulsively joins the brigades of men volunteering to fight the blaze, leaving his wife and young son to fend for themselves. The distant fire becomes a powerful but unobtrusive metaphor for a marriage whose smoldering resentments threaten to erupt in full fury.
Wildlife tells an archetypal American family story, with the father as modern pioneer, driven by failures to drag his family to ever more remote places; an increasingly resentful mother who wants more; and the child who watches things fall apart. Rootlessness and parental disaffection offset by a child’s deep need for family stability evoke such memoirs set in the 1950s as Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, and are no less powerful here for being familiar. As the family unravels, Joe’s eyes grow ever wider with disbelief and dismay. One sly trick of Wildlife is to keep the worst things offscreen—leaving the camera on the boy’s face, for instance, as his mother strays into unfaithfulness during a dinner at a wealthy car dealer’s home.
First-time director Dano keeps a close focus on his three main actors: Jake Gyllenhaal as Jerry, his good looks and bursts of bravado weighed down with a hangdog moroseness; Carey Mulligan as Jeanette, all steadfast optimism until, suddenly, the effort collapses; and Ed Oxenbould as fourteen-year-old Joe, taking it all in, his expression reflecting inner vicissitudes of perplexity, hope, and dismay. Paul Dano is familiar to moviegoers through his own work as an actor, beginning with the underappreciated 2001 film, L.I.E., and proceeding to such Oscar-winning films as Little Miss Sunshine and Twelve Years a Slave. His acting exudes a stolid slowness, and Richard Ford’s writing possesses a similar quality, his characters’ thoughts frequently circling into perseveration. But the slowness works well in Wildlife, which keeps the pace of an introspective and observant child for whom the events of this year in his life constitute a painful dawning. Wildlife lets us watch as Joe’s own watchful intelligence assimilates the shock of new and unsettling adult realities; the film’s heartbreak is mitigated by our sense that such closely studied vagaries of parental pain are already shaping the writer the boy will someday become.