Wildlife, Paul Dano’s 2018 adaptation of the Richard Ford novel of the same name, is a strong directorial debut and a film featuring several strong performances, from Carey Mulligan’s Jeanette, a mother worn down by constantly needing to be the adult and pragmatic in her marriage, to Jake Gyllenhaal’s Jerry, the insecure father who finds no other way to prove his self-worth than abandoning his family when they need him most, and Ed Oxenbould as Joe, the son through whose eyes we see everything unfolding. Dano’s direction is traditional and quiet but serves the material well, evoking a very specific 1960s America we don’t often see and allowing the performances to create a complex, layered emotional landscape. It is a faithful adaptation, but not a mere flattening out of the novel into overly literal illustrations of the literary material.
In doing so, however, Wildlife has ended up in a strange in-between state. It uses cinematic means to achieve what Ford did with his prose, but it does so in such an unassuming way that there’s not all that much point for anyone who has read the novel to see the film. For better or for worse, after seeing the film, my main thought was, “Yup, that’s Richard Ford’s Wildlife.” Can an adaptation be too faithful?
It’s time for some superlatives: to my mind, Michael Fassbender is one of the most exciting actors of his generation, and Steve “Not that one!” McQueen is one of the visually most accomplished directors making films these days. Not many people could make fecal mandalas on prison walls intriguingly beautiful, but McQueen managed this with a deceptively effortless grace in Hunger, his film about Bobby Sands’ death. Not coincidentally, the other main strength of Hunger was Michael Fassbender’s electric performance.
Fassbender and McQueen seem to bring out the best in each other, since their 2011 film Shame is yet another movie with amazing visuals and a brave central performance that serves the film’s story perfectly. On paper it sounds like festival fodder: Shame depicts a sex addict’s descent into his personal hell after his sister, with a whole set of issues of her own when it comes to relationships, comes to stay with him. Yet in the hands of its director and star, and with the more-than-capable help of Carey Mulligan, Shame doesn’t feel like it’s pandering to a particular audience, doing its own thing instead, and to great effect.
If there’s a list of films featuring depressing sex, Shame is definitely in the top 5 (other candidates would be 28 Grams and Blue Valentine – a threesome between those three movies would probably create the sad sex singularity that effectively ends the world because no one would ever procreate naturally again). Strangely, though, for all the joylessness of Brandon’s sexual misadventures, there’s a genuine joy to watching a film as confidently handled, visually entrancing and perfectly acted as this.
P.S.: Some reviewers and bloggers accused Shame of homophobia, as during his climactic (no pun intended) long night’s journey into hell he gets a temporary fix by getting a blowjob in the underworld of a dungeon-like gay club, the argument being that McQueen depicts gay sex as the absolute lowest point in Brandon’s odyssey towards some sort of happiness. To my mind, those reviewers ignore that while the encounter is demeaning and joyless, the same is true for practically each of Brandon’s sexual encounters. The scene is followed by an extended threesome with two (female) prostitutes, which is arguably more aligned with generic male fantasy, yet this menage à trois is presented as no less demeaning, nor any more enjoyable. There is nothing in the blowjob scene to suggest that it’s to be read as worse for the character than what happens before or after it. If McQueen had wanted to show gay sex as the worst option for a sex-addicted straight man, surely a director as in control of his material as him would have found a more effective way of showing this, wouldn’t he?