Criterion Review: WILDLIFE (2018)

Criterion’s new Blu Intimately captures the creative process behind Paul Dano’s directorial debut

The Brinsons of Montana are falling apart. Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) loses his job as a caddy at the local golf course for being too familiar with the customers — then refuses out of pride to go back when his job’s offered again. Jeanette (Carey Mulligan) floats the idea of going back to work — with little other life experience than raising the family she’s created with Jerry. A wildfire sparks and rages just outside of town — and the chance to go fight it renews Jerry’s juvenile sense of masculine purpose. While Jerry’s away fighting fires, Jeanette finds a new liberation as she rediscovers past ambitions she’d long since buried…but finds herself straying from her relationship with Jerry. Witnessing it all is Joe (Ed Oxenbould), their 16-year-old son. Caught between his love for both parents and the secrets he’s forced to keep for them, Joe finds his allegiances and identity split — and that his attempts to keep a fragile peace may be driving his family further apart from one another.

It’s always a curious, exciting thing when actors seize the opportunity to direct. Through their work taking instruction from other directors, actors can use both their own process and the influence of those they’ve worked with in forging a singular vision. Having worked with such directors as Paul Thomas Anderson, Bong Joon-Ho, and Paolo Sorrentino, Paul Dano has turned in performances that have ranged from the explosive to the subdued and insular — which made me curious as to how his debut directorial effort would turn out.

For the most part, Wildlife is a film that takes after its writer-director. It’s very much a voyeuristic look at suburban ennui, one populated with characters who feel as emotionally stunted as they are explosive. Wildlife’s three leads feel uncomfortably indivisible in terms of how young they act and feel — Dano presents Jeanette and Jerry like awkward teenagers thrust into adulthood just as much as Joe is in the midst of their marital strife. Layer by layer, Dano and his actors reveal the immaturity at the core of these parents, a realization that washes over Oxenbould’s Joe like the scorching wildfire that blazes nearby. It’s this methodical, natural deconstruction of his characters that makes Dano’s debut film so memorable — and it’s one that feels all the richer due to the level of trust that Dano places in his actors to execute his vision.

Criterion’s new release of Wildlife, itself unique as the first release of the film on home video stateside, is impressive in how equally methodical it is in documenting the process of Dano’s first experiences as a helmer behind the camera. Packed with detailed conversations between Dano and his cast and crew, Criterion’s release of Wildlife provides an intimate look at the creation of an extremely personal film for its creators.


Criterion presents Wildlife in a 1.85:1 1080p transfer mastered from the film’s original 2K digital elements. Picture is accompanied by an English 5.1 Dolby Digital surround track, as well as an English SDH subtitle track.

The film’s transfer is crisp and textured, with a wide-ranging color palette that captures the sun-dappled midwestern landscapes captured by cinematographer Diego Garcia. With some thanks given to the film’s 2K digital workflow, black levels are solid with artifact-free shadows and no real examples of distracting crushing. The film’s 5.1 track nicely layered between the actors’ tense dialogue delivery and the light background noise that makes the characters’ silences feel all the more emotionally charged.

Special Features

  • From Script to Screen: Newly-recorded interviews with writer-director Dano, co-writer Zoe Kazan, and actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Carey Mulligan. Dano and Kazan mainly discuss the challenges of adapting Richard Ford’s intimate, insular novel for film while avoiding temptations like voiceover. The film’s actors join in to discuss being the stepping-stone between Ford’s novel and Dano’s script, and experimenting with various ways in which scenes were once shot then discarded in favor of more explosive, range-filled moments. Tantalyzing outtakes are shown, giving a brief glimpse into how alternate versions of scenes once played out.
  • Paul Dano & Richard Ford: A 2018 conversation between Wildlife writer-director Dano and the author of the film’s original source material. Ford and Dano discusses the genesis of Ford’s original novel and its origins in his own youth, the struggle of filtering a book as subjective as Wildlife through a mostly-objective film lens, and the trepidation of creating a close working relationship with the author of the film you’re directing.
  • Post-Production: A newly-recorded interview between Dano, Wildlife editor Matthew Hannam, and composer David Lang. Dano is refreshingly candid about his own nervousness and over-preparation going into this phase of Wildlife’s creation, and further glimpses at discarded material and radically alternate takes illuminate the difficult yet rewarding decisions Lang and Dano made in shaping the overall effect of the film. Dano and Lang’s discussions on the score are just as thorough, delving into resisting typical stringed instruments in favor of woodwinds to create an equally tentative and intimate score.
  • World of Wildlife: A new interview with Wildlife’s cinematographer Diego Garcia, production designer Akin Mackenzie, and costume designer Amanda Ford. It’s fascinating to watch all 3 discuss creating an authentic recreation of 1950s suburban life on a shoestring budget, and balancing period accuracy with a world that adequately expresses the inner world of its characters.
  • Essay: A short piece by film historian and journalist Mark Harris. Harris remarks on the electric stillness of Dano’s film, one that never ceases to feel charged with emotion due to Dano’s level of personal empathy for his characters.

Wildlife is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

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