Wildlife

* * * * 1/2

US cinema is having a rich year, and the talent behind it is fresh. With only two months to go, 2018’s three best American films – Hereditary, A Star Is Born and Wildlife – are all directorial debut feature films. Seemingly disparate, they share some unexpected connections (the unexciting one being that they’re all, culturally, very, very white.) They seem to be rooted in their own genre lanes – horror, romance and family drama – but there is thematic connective tissue, with particular overlap between Hereditary and Wildlife, two films about the effect of family disturbance upon a teenage boy.

In this case, the boy is Joe, played with supreme sensitivity by Ed Oxenbould. It’s the early 1960s in Montana, which may as well be the 1950s or earlier, and Joe’s parents are struggling. Dad Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) is one of those men, littered throughout American literature (the film is based on the book by Richard Ford) for whom the American foundation is proving to be deceptive, if not an outright lie. Joe’s mother Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) is, likewise, stuck in a construction – American mid-century marriage – that could not seem more like a prison. When Joe loses his job, both he and Jeanette take single, seemingly selfish actions, one following the other, like dominoes; the enormity of their effect can only be gauged on Joe’s face, in silent close-up, for it is only he who must absorb every single ripple of their actions through no impulse of his own.

Debutant director Paul Dano exudes incredible assurance. The film is flawlessly conceived. All of the performances are tremendous (Mulligan, with the lion’s share of the movie’s dialogue and vulnerable moments, is staggeringly good), the cinematography is superb, the score precise and profound. Above all, the storytelling is intellectually rigorous. Dano never abandons his young protagonist to the fireworks of his parents’ behaviour; Joe might say very little, but he is always there. Like a lot of American dramatic cinema and literature, Wildlife uses the disintegration of the mid-century American dream to remind us that the biggest impact of all is that of parents on their children, and that culpability begins at home.