Emotional breakdown in Montana

  • by David Lamble
  • Tuesday October 23, 2018
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The subject of the new drama "Wildlife" (opening Friday) is achingly familiar to many LGBTQ filmgoers. The directorial debut of indie film actor Paul Dano, "Wildlife" plants us in a kind of waking nightmare experienced by the film's emotionally challenged hero, Joe, a 16-year-old only child who finds his whole world imploding as his impetuous dad brings him and his mom to a small Montana town on the edge of a raging forest fire. For a few emotionally fraught days, the kid watches as all the adults in his life seem to lose their bearings. Each undergoes a kind of emotional breakdown that they attempt to convince the boy is the new normal.

The film, adapted from a 1990 Richard Ford novel by Dano and his life partner Zoe Kazan, unfolds as Joe observes his parents' marriage implode, and gets an invitation to see his mom stepping out with a much older, wealthy man, Warren Miller (Bill Camp).

The time is 1960, and most of the country is riding the ups and downs of a national election pitting a charismatic change agent (Sen. John F. Kennedy) against the five o'clock shadow of a devious demagogue (VP Richard M. Nixon). In Montana, that all seems mere sound and fury, transmitted over an AM car radio or a jiggly B&W TV. Joe (a heart-tug of a performance from Australian-raised Ed Oxenbould) watches sadly as his dad and mom quarrel, then separate. The boy neglects his schoolwork as he finds an afterschool job as a photographer's assistant.

Dano captures the fragile nature of lower-middle-class life on the edge of the great American dream machine. Joe's dad (volatile Jake Gyllenhaal) is unfairly fired from his job as a country club golf instructor. Mom (career high for Carey Mulligan) attempts to become the family breadwinner, finding only meager work as a part-time swimming instructor. Dano and his stellar cast make clear how soul-destroying these mishaps become for dad and mom. Add to this toxic mix the temptation of mom's affair with the aging Miller, and you have a nightmare tale that bursts into flames.

In my conversation with first-time director Paul Dano, he described how he happened upon the Richard Ford novel. "I read the first sentence of 'Wildlife' in a bookstore, and I was like, 'Oh shit, this is beautiful!'"

David Lamble: This the first film you're in involved with that you're not acting in. How do you get your cast? Jake [Gyllenhaal] you know from "Prisoners," but Carey Mulligan and the kid [Ed Oxenbould] are really wonderful!

Paul Dano: That's one of the legs up I have as an actor becoming a filmmaker. Zoe Kazan and Carey did a play on Broadway together, about 10 years ago now. They shared a dressing room, so I became friends with Carey. When we first started writing, she was probably too young to play Jeanette. But it took a few years to write.

Like the five years you waited to play Dwayne in "Little Miss Sunshine."

Yes, exactly. Carey was excited by the character immediately! I handed her the script on a Friday night, and she called me Saturday morning. The fastest read I'll ever get from an actor! Jake and Carey were friends, so I sent it to him. I had just seen "Nightcrawler," which was so brilliant, but so —


Yes. So I wondered if something so classically American, so simple, could be a nice change of pace. The film is so reliant on the actors' inner life. Then casting the kid. We got a call from Australia, and it was the best tape we saw. Ed could fill the space between the lines, not just say the lines well. It was the first time Zoe and I saw the scenes the way we imagined them. We were really lucky to find him.

In terms of gay content in movies, there isn't all that much. To what degree have you worked on a movie where there was a gay character?

Certainly "L.I.E.," which was an important film for that time and a bold film. Well, you're right, there are obvious milestones. One of my favorite filmmakers is Terence Davies. His films are such incredible raw representations of what it's like to feel like you don't fit. He lives in a very Catholic home, secretly gay. I find those films just gorgeous and crushing. They are certainly favorite films of mine, and I don't think it matters whether you are straight or gay.